Anyone who has been around this term surely cannot have failed to notice the recent spate of Al-Jazeera events at the Union. The man behind all the big names and TV cameras is none other than Mehdi Hasan, the Political Director of the Huffington Post and the host of Al Jazeera’s new Head to Head series.
The format of the show, for anyone who didn’t manage to make it to any of the recordings, is meant to be highly combative. As Mehdi says, “this is not a BBC HardTalk interview series where I’m a neutral presenter. The whole conceit of this show apart from doing it in the Oxford Union with an audience full of Oxford boffins is the fact that I am opinionated and I come to the interview with a perspective and a strong view. The name of the show does describe what is going on – we are going head to head.”
His guests are no ordinary fare either, including the ex-head of the FSA, Lord Adair Turner and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, Mehdi has faced some of the toughest opponents possible, covering topics from the failure of global capitalism to the role of the US in the world. Although as the host, Mehdi found that the best debates were not the ones he expected – “The ones I thought would be the really interesting ones for me personally because of my background and my interests were Dani Dayan, the leader of the settlers in the West Bank who came out from the Occupied West Bank in order to do this programme, and Irshad Manji, the lesbian Muslim so-called “refusenik” who’s been very critical of Islam and Muslims… but actually in the end, I think the best debate and probably the most important debate given what’s going on in the world was the one which kicks the series off this Friday, which is Bernard Henri-Levy.”
Henri-Levy is a French Philosopher of equal fame and infamy, a friend of Nicolas Sarkozy and a passionate proponent of humanitarian intervention. His episode is dedicated to the issue of foreign military intervention, and was one of the more fearsome trials of Mehdi’s resolve. “He’s regarded as one of the cleverest men in the world, so someone like myself, who got a 2:1 degree in PPE going against one of the world’s great public intellectuals could be slightly nervous!”
Not that Hasan is any slouch. Throughout the series he has proved more than able to score points against his opponents, memorably stunning Tom Friedman with the suggestion that Israel should face similar sanctions for its nuclear arms as Iran does. “The point about that is that a lot of commentators like Tom, famous and respected and talented as they are tend to engage in egregious double standards and one of them is, for example, the nuclear debate. At the moment, if a Martian was to arrive from outer space, he might wonder why the “international community have sanctions on a country that doesn’t have nuclear weapons rather than the country in the Middle East that does have nuclear weapons, on the country that does allow in UN inspectors to its nuclear sites as opposed to the country that never allowed in UN inspectors to its nuclear sites.”
And, in the pilot (a one-off Christmas show that spawned the series), Hasan took on one of the so-called Four Horsemen of New Atheism, Richard Dawkins, in an interview (as the option to debate was originally turned down by the professor) that resulted in Dawkins attacking Hasan’s Islamic beliefs as naïve, equivalent to belief in fairies.
Hasan seems to have taken this in his stride, in the spirit of public debate – ”I think what it’s indicative of is of a growing strain of slightly intolerant, slightly self-obsessed, quite arrogant New Atheists, who want to ridicule religion and believers and marginalise us in public life and mock us. That’s fine, we live in a free society – do what you want – but some of us are going to push back.” Less acceptable to him, however, is how the interview degenerated into a confrontation. “He turned down that opportunity, but during the actual programme … he decided to try and turn the tables and start mocking my beliefs and questioning why I believe in miracles, which is certainly fair enough, but is a little bit disingenuous given the fact that he was given the opportunity to debate with me and turned it down.”
Mehdi’s beliefs seem, to some extent to define his writing, but this is, he argues, merely contingent on the political reality of the world in which we live. “When I was at the New Statesman, a very secular leftist publication, people would complain that I always wrote about religion, God and Islam, and part of me wanted to say “Do you think I want to?”. Muslims don’t want to be in the public eye all the time for all the wrong reasons, I don’t want to have to write pieces saying that suicide bombings aren’t Islamic, I wish there weren’t any suicide bombings. … I wish I never had to write any of these pieces and I could just write about austerity or the NHS, but, unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in.”
However, he is no doctrinaire apologist for UK Muslims. He has, on many occasions, spoken out about problems within the community, even at the risk of giving ammunition to their enemies, both in the tabloid press and the extreme political fringes. He claims, however, that this is not the same thing as helping these enemies – “I think the fact that I’m a Muslim myself – it’s not that it gives me cover, as some people have accused me of – but that I’m writing from within the community without perhaps the agendas you see on the comment pages of the Express or occasionally the Mail. And that’s what’s missing. When people say you’re just as bad as the other critics – not at all – Goodness Gracious Me was able to put out a series making fun of Asians in a way that a bunch of white comedians wouldn’t have been able to do.”
Hasan has himself come up against the barriers of what it is and, more to the point, isn’t acceptable to write about in the past. His piece on abortion for the New Statesman, setting out his feelings about the emotional complexity of the matter in a pro-life manner seemed to take over the Twittersphere for at least a week, enraging many and pleasing few. “All the pieces I’ve ever written on Israel, anti-Semitism, on Islam, on terrorism, on suicide bombings, on the Iraq war, on Iran – I’ve had some pretty heated reactions to pieces I write. Never have I had a reaction like that.” Mehdi has since expressed regret about the way in which he expressed himself in that piece, but does still feel that the discussion is worth having, if not necessarily through the medium of microblogging. “You simply can’t have that debate, not on Twitter, not even in column length, you need book length. If you’re at university, as I was 14 years ago, you’ll have to write essays about the ethics of abortion … vast sections of moral philosophy are devoted to the subject.” The complexity and passion behind the issue seems to have deterred him from writing any future pieces on the subject.
However, abortion aside, there is no issue which Mehdi seems unwilling to debate, which is what made his events at the Union, and the programmes that resulted, such an interesting, informative and even exciting watch.
Head to Head will be broadcast at 8pm every week from Friday 7th June on Al Jazeera and will be available online soon afterwards.