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A few days after author Christopher Hitchens announced to the world that he had an advanced and deadly cancer, the 92nd street YMCA in Manhattan announced that it would be hosting a debate between the pugnacious author and Tariq Ramadan, the infamous Islamist apologist and progeny of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. The pair met to spar over the question: “Is Islam a religion of peace?” I bought my tickets not knowing whether Hitch would be up to the task considering his condition; it was a leap of faith.
The event, which was simulcast to several Jewish community centers in Colorado, Rhode Island, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Chicago was moderated by The New York Times religion correspondent, Laurie Goodstein. The debate was supposed to have taken place over three years ago, but for whatever reason, Dr. Ramadan withdrew. Hitchens, being who he is, attempted to re-stage the canceled encounter by unexpectedly confronting Ramadan at a literary festival in Mantua, Italy later that year. Hitchens asked some very good questions, but the short exchange only whet the appetite for more.
Finally, after much anticipation, the world was treated to a discussion on this consuming question. To add even greater significance, the debate took place at a venue 110 blocks from where the proposed “Ground Zero” mosque may soon be built.
Ms. Goldstein briefly introduced the speakers and even more briefly introduced the rules. It was a rather informal debate with guidelines for times but not strict limits.
Hitchens began by declaring that Islam could not be a religion of peace because there is no such thing as a religion of peace simply by definition. Religion and peace are incompatible because, at its core, religion is a war on reason. Religion, especially Islam, professes to be the vehicle by which humans achieve salvation, but humans also rely on it to think for them. Islam, like any other religion, is a flawed attempt by flawed people to create (or arrive at) a final and a definitive answer to everything. Thus, according to Hitchens, its totality is totalitarian. Not coincidentally, religion’s manifestations are often correspondingly totalitarian, and brutally so.
Ramadan’s initial response was that the problem with religion, and in particular with Islam, is not with its religious book per se but with the book’s readers. Misguided interpretations of Islam’s religious texts are what have caused some people to stray from God’s original intent. For Ramadan, Hitchens unfairly distills and simplifies a religion which is multifarious, just as the human race is. There is indeed good Islam present in the world, and there are many adherents of it (according to Ramadan, more than we know about).
Furthermore, Ramadan believes that in its ideal form, Islam is what allows us to save ourselves from ourselves — that is, from all those human qualities which we abhor. This process, he claimed, is jihad. Ramadan believes that jihad is one of the many terms that Americans and the West misunderstand. At this point, I could not help but be reminded of the defense that Communists give when confronted with the horrors perpetrated in the name of their political philosophy throughout the 20th century. That was not the “real” Communism, they say.
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