We need more Mehdi Hasans

No one should have to 'fit in' by keeping quiet about their religion

Mehdi Hasan attends the Muslim Public Affairs Council Convention: Authentic Voices For Principled Changed, in Los Angeles on November 11. Getty Images
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Rarely has the cancellation of a political programme caused such a furore. The news that the US cable channel MSNBC is axing “The Mehdi Hasan Show”, which went out on weekends over the past three years, has made headlines around the world (including in this newspaper), and provoked a string of superlatives from across the spectrum to describe its host.

The conservative commentator Charlie Sykes, also an MSNBC contributor, has called Hasan “a once-in-a-generation talent” and “the most gifted interviewer in US media”. In Britain, where Hasan grew up and started his career, the left-wing columnist Owen Jones posted on X: “There's no better interviewer than Mehdi Hasan: forensic, razor-sharp, an encyclopaedic knowledge.”

I can’t list all the tributes, but they are fully justified. Hasan’s combative but highly informed grilling of figures such as the Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev, former US national security adviser John Bolton and Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy have helped to illuminate the facts and educate viewers. While his shows haven’t topped the ratings, clips have gone viral on social media, frequently being viewed many millions of times. It would be fair to say that his legions of fans around the world regard him as almost uniquely uncompromising in demanding truth from power.

We need more Mehdi Hasans, not fewer. He’ll still appear as an on-air commentator and guest host on MSNBC, but he deserves – and will surely soon regain – his own show, probably on another platform.

It must also be said that he is one of the most famous Muslim voices in the English-language global media ecosystem. It would be limiting, and unfair to Hasan’s great talents, for that to define him; but it is both significant and important. And early on in his career, it did come close to defining him, as I observed when we were colleagues at Britain’s New Statesman magazine in 2009.

At the time, among the array of regular columnists in what we still called “Fleet Street”, only two were Muslim: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown at the Independent, and Ziauddin Sardar at the Statesman. I knew and admired them both, but there was a lot of Islamophobia about in Britain – the 2005 London bombings were fresh in the collective memory – and Ms Alibhai-Brown, in particular, received a lot of abuse, not least because she compounded her religious and ethnic minority statuses with the unforgivable sin of being an outspoken woman.

So for New Statesman editor Jason Cowley to bring in Hasan, who had previously been a TV researcher and producer, as the magazine’s leading political writer was a brave hire; and to some, it was controversial, precisely because he was Muslim. When he and I both published articles calling for greater understanding of religion, especially Islam – which was truly needed in a bitterly divided time – we were attacked so vociferously and viciously that I questioned the wisdom of writing on the subject. Hasan got it far worse, but to his credit he never backed down.

Hasan has presented a valuable example of a Muslim in the West who is as articulate, educated and progressive as anyone, but will talk about his faith when he wants to

It wasn’t long before he was making regular appearances on TV shows such as the BBC’s flagship “Question Time” and making an immediate impression with his fluency, controlled passion and command of the facts. The move to presenting his own shows, first on Al Jazeera English and then MSNBC, was no surprise. Friends and foes would have to acknowledge that his skills as an interviewer and debater are of the highest order.

At the same time, he has never shied from talking about his faith. That, perhaps, has been a little unusual – but I don’t think it should be. In fact, one of the reasons I say we need more Mehdi Hasans is that I don’t believe anyone should have to “fit in” by keeping quiet about their religion (not that anyone has ever accused Hasan of keeping quiet about anything).

Religion is of huge importance – of centrality, to many – to billions on the planet. The Pew Research Centre predicts that the percentage of people with religious affiliation is set to increase by 2050, with Muslims nearly catching up with Christians as an overall percentage worldwide. In North America and Europe, Muslims are minorities that have already broken through “glass ceilings” in politics, entertainment and public life in general. But, in my view, while Christians (of course, as the majority), Hindus, Buddhists, Jewish people and others can speak freely about their beliefs, there is an unspoken preference for Muslims not to do so, or at least not so much.

That’s why I think Hasan has presented a valuable example of a Muslim in the West who is as articulate, educated and progressive as anyone, but will talk about his faith when he wants to – and demonstrate that it is entirely consistent with his values as a Briton, as a US citizen, as a man of the liberal-left and as a broadcaster searching out objective truths. That is what I believe should be normalised.

When young people across the continents watch global media on whatever platform, they have a variety of figures to inspire them, from CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and The National’s own Gavin Esler, to Simone Heng (formerly of Virgin Radio Dubai and CNBC) and even YouTubers like Mr Beast.

Many parents of Muslim children like my own two boys may also be glad, however, that they have role models with which they can feel another connection: that titans of the airwaves and internet also have names such as Fareed Zakaria, Mishal Husain, Haslinda Amin and, yes, Mehdi Hasan. And if my old colleague Mehdi can do it, maybe they can do it too – be all of who they are, wherever they are.

Published: December 06, 2023, 2:00 PM