Festival of Dangerous Ideas: Cancelling the ‘Honour Killings' talk is not enough

Speaker, writer and activist, Uthman Badar.

Speaker, writer and activist, Uthman Badar.

When the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) released its 2014 program on Tuesday, they must have known they would spark a strong reaction.

Not only does the line-up include such anti-feminist and homophobic titles such as ‘Some Families Are Better Than Others’ and ‘The Rise Of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys’, but there was also a scheduled appearance from Uthman Badar, spokesperson for Hizb ut-Tahrir (a Muslim extremist organisation with about a million followers worldwide) whose talk was provocatively titled ‘Honour Killings Are Morally Justified.’

And provoke it did. The outrage on Twitter and talkback radio was so swift and condemnatory that the Opera House released a statement Tuesday night saying the event had been cancelled:

Festival of Dangerous Ideas co-curator Ann Mossop.

Festival of Dangerous Ideas co-curator Ann Mossop. Photo: Steven Siewert

“It is always a matter of balance and judgement, and in this case a line has been crossed. Accordingly, we have decided not to proceed with the scheduled session with Uthman Badar. It is clear from the public reaction that the title has given the wrong impression of what Mr Badar intended to discuss.”


Who would have thought a talk titled ‘Honour Killings are Morally Justified’ would not be attempting to morally justify honour killings?

Firstly, its flippancy belies the seriousness of honour killings, which are not merely a “dangerous idea” but a brutal reality for thousands of women across the world. To turn their suffering into a gimmicky title designed to inflame the passions of middle-class festival-going westerners is stomach-churning to say the least.

Talk cancelled: Uthman Badar.

Talk cancelled: Uthman Badar. Photo: Facebook

Secondly, to be fair to Badar, the description for the talk (which has been removed from the website but is available here in a cached version) has more nuance than the title, questioning, for example, why the west sees fit to moralise to other cultures given its penchant for perpetually sending young men off to war.

That is a fair call. However, to make this point at the expense of murdered young women who had absolutely no control over their situation is unconscionable.

Honour killings are not the appropriate framework in which to discuss moral relativism. Honour crimes are illegal in every single country in which they occur. Yes, it is a travesty that many go unpunished, but that does not mean they are a cherished aspect of certain cultures so much as they are a blight on them.

Honour killings are a product of violent, patriarchal misogyny and, as such, they should be approached via the framework of women’s emancipation, not used as a platform from which to cry “Racism!

To even insinuate that the victims here are the “powerless” brown men who just want to kill their daughters in peace without interference from white, western liberals is not only grotesque, it is inaccurate given the work that so many people (mostly women) are doing within these cultures to end violence against women.

How then was this talk and title approved in the first place? I tried to reach the festival curators for comment but since they are unwilling to give more statements at this time, I can only go by what has already been released to the public.

As such, it seems to me that FODI was trading on the status of the scary Muslim “other” to sell this gig.Hizb ut-Tahrir is a political organisation that is considered so far outside the Muslim mainstream that even Saudi Arabia has banned them.

A cursory look at their website sees support for (amongst other things), child marriage, suggesting that 12 year old girl are capable of giving consent.

Why would the Festival choose this speaker to give this particular talk? Well, from the sounds of it, no one else was willing to do it.

Festival curator Simon Longstaff admitted he had been trying to push this topic for years. Badar has since said that he had an entirely different talk in mind but the festival “insisted” on this one.

From what I can tell, Badar was to be the only Muslim speaker at this year’s festival.  So the sole Muslim voice is from a radical organisation that flatly rejects democracy as un-Islamic, and the title gives the impression that he would be advocating not just violence against women, but for their actual murders.

Talk about neatly complying with the stereotype of the violent Muslim male. Is it any wonder that the west has such a dim view of Islam when this is what is often presented to the public?

Both the festival and Badar have since strongly stated that they do not advocate any sort of violence against women. Curator Ann Mossop told the media the talk “obviously” would not promote honour killings. In that case, the title clearly misrepresented what Badar intended to say, doing a disservice to him and to Muslims in general who have once again been singled out.

Badar himself has used the debacle to call hypocrisy on the west, saying his freedom of expression has been curtailed, and put the outrage down to Islamophobia.

Yes, it is, but not in the way he thinks.

Firstly, it is rather disingenuous of Badar to call Islamophobia on this, considering it is radical, anti-western organisations such as his that many Muslims expend so much effort trying to distance themselves from. Islamophobia is when non-Muslims point to extreme forms of Islam as an excuse to condemn all Muslims.

Secondly, the title of the talk simply perpetuates the stereotype of violent Islam. This is some seriously heavy ammunition FODI has just handed to the anti-Islam crowd, who are always looking for an opportunity to remind the rest of us that Islam is incompatible with “western values.”

As such, simply cancelling the talk is not enough. The Festival owes an apology to the Muslim community who have once again been tarnished through no fault of their own. It owes an apology to victims of honour crimes, and -as much as I disagree with the views of his organisation- it even owes an apology to Badar.

Clearly, FODI were unprepared for the scale of the backlash but it seems pretty clear to me that Badar was used. He was used to provoke, to frighten, to create publicity, and to sell tickets. The festival set him up for a fall. They chose the topic and the title, and then they put his scary, brown Muslim face on it.

FODI traded on the suspicions the west already harbours towards Muslims and now that it has blown up in their faces, they need to own it.