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Huffington Post's new UK political director brings pro-Iran baggage, large Twitter following, experts say

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    Chairman and CEO of AOL/HuffPo Tim Armstrong. (Reuters)

The Huffington Post's UK site has courted a storm of publicity by hiring Mehdi Hasan – a controversial British journalist described by detractors as “a devout Muslim who has praised Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei” – as their political director.

Known as a lighting rod for controversy, Hasan appeared in an undated video clip in which he declared: “Once we lose the moral high ground we are no different from the rest of the non-Muslims, from the rest of those human beings who live their lives as animals, bending any rule to fulfill any desire.”

“There’s no way to contextualize this stuff, and if there was, Mehdi would have offered it by now,” Raheem Kassam, executive editor of TheCommentator.com told FOXNews.com. “There’s been complete radio silence from Mehdi and his supporters over those quotes because they know that he was called out and caught and saying something on camera. He was addressing a religious audience and he didn’t want that to be seen by the public.”

"[Mehdi Hassan's] comments, made some years ago, have been taken completely out of context'

- HuffPo UK editor Carla Buzasi

The web site Freebeacon.com accused Hasan, among other things, of defending the Iranian regime on “multiple occasions” and of trying “to rationalize President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s many calls for Israel’s destruction.” 

But Hasan told FoxNews.com on Friday that his words have been "wholly taken out of context."

“I’m shocked to have been accused of extremism. I am a strong supporter of, and participant in, secular, civil society, as my published work shows. The remarks that have appeared online were made more than three years ago and have been taken wholly out of context," he told FoxNews.com in a statement. "I did not 'praise' Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei but merely welcomed his statement condemning nuclear weapons as un-Islamic. The use of the term 'animals' was a reference to a Qur'anic phrase and would have been received by the audience the way the term 'heathen' might be received in a Christian church -- a shorthand reference to ancient scripture not meant to be taken literally."

Hasan did however say his remarks were "ill-advised."

"[I]n hindsight, I accept the phraseology was ill-advised and inappropriate," he said. "Finally, my quoting of the Qur’anic phrase 'people of no intelligence,' in relation to atheists, is simply the Muslim equivalent of atheists (like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris) who regard believers as fundamentally irrational."

Huffington Post UK editor in chief Carla Buzasi also defended Hasan.

"These comments, made some years ago, have been taken completely out of context," Busazi said. "Mehdi Hasan is a well-known and highly respected political journalist and commentator in the UK, and I look forward to the expertise and passion he will bring to the HuffPost UK team."

Kassam did not buy Hasan's explanation.

"I think this is the first time Mehdi has ever shown any shame over his comments and while that is to be welcomed, he can't be allowed to rewrite history in the way he has attempted to," Kassam told FoxNews.com."Hasan has previously argued about how rational an Iranian bomb would be. He did not just call atheists 'people of no intelligence' but rather all 'kaffir' [non-Muslims] and papering over the cracks in such a manner is grossly misleading."

Hasan is currently the senior political editor at the left-leaning New Statesman, and frequent guest on UK political talk shows, including Newsnight and Question Time. Hasan also has a large social media presence, engaging with his 27,000+ Twitter followers on a daily basis.

Some say those 27,000+ followers are the real reason Huffington, which merged with AOL last year under CEO Tim Armstrong, hired Hasan.

Hasan was listed as the UK's number two blogger in Total Politics magazine's annual list of "top 50 media bloggers" in 2011, and recently Portland PR/Tweetminster named him the second most influential British journalist on Twitter.

“Mehdi is one of a new breed of journalists who use social media to not only distribute their content, but also to take part in real-time conversations about current issues,” Mark Flanagan, Portland’s partner for digital communications, told FOXNews.com. “The high level of engagement he has with the public, as well as key media tweeters, helped make him number two in Portland's most recent index of influential news tweeters."

Another Internet strategist agrees that Hasan’s Twitter influence played a large role in his hire at the Huffington Post UK. 

“I think it makes sense that they would hire someone who has a lot of influence in the Twittersphere. It’s a part of the hiring process these days, particularly for media,” Chris Jones, principal at Hotstudio.com, tells FOXNews.com. “People don’t just follow people they like on Twitter. If someone has a provocative personality, they’re generating a conversation. Followers are interested in that, maybe more than the actual person. With Mehdi’s hire, the Huffington Post UK is bringing along the controversy and the conversation, not necessarily the individual.”

“Social media is definitely an aspect of Mehdi’s hire–he spends an inordinate amount of time on Twitter, quite frankly, for someone who qualifies himself as a reputable journalist,” said Kassam. “I would imagine that he should be doing more researching and less tweeting.”

Kassam sees Mehdi’s hire as an act of desperation. 

“The Huffington Post UK is on a downward spiral, so I think for them, this is kind of the last roll of the dice sort of tactic," Kassam said. "They’re thinking, ‘This guy is a big name. Yes, he comes with a stigma, but we’ll give it a shot.’”

According to Alexa.com, a web traffic reporting web site, Huffingtonpost.co.uk currently ranks as the UK’s 191st most visited website. Its daily unique page views have recently been trending downward a bit, with a .6 percent decline over the last three months.

Jones notes that the promise of Mehdi’s tens of thousands of Twitter followers flocking to follow him on the HuffPo UK may have proved irresistible to his new boss, Arianna Huffington, a proponent of social media.

“I suspect with some organizations, common sense can be outweighed by Twitter influence,” Jones said.

Huffington Post's executive editor Timothy L. O'Brien defended his hire.

"I'm confident that Mehdi will bring the same sense of pluralism and intellectual generosity to his work at The Huffington Post as he has to all of his work in the past," O'Brien told Foxnews.com. "It's unfortunate that ideologues would try to portray him as anyone other than who he is: a first-rate thinker and journalist."

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