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.
In response, Hitchens argued that simply by reading holy books one cannot say whether this book or that book is definitely the word of God. What he can say is that if these books were the word of God, particularly with respect to Islam, they must have come when God was having a bad day. The audience laughed and Hitch mentioned that he was happy to be in a country where such a joke was greeted with laughter, rather than violence. Unfortunately, even in our free society, we are becoming less free because there now exists a legitimate fear of reprisals from offended Muslims. Even in America, to this day, no print newspaper has shown the infamous Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed.
Ramadan responded by repeating himself: the problem is not the religion but some of its practitioners. Islam deals with human beings, he said, and where you deal with human beings you will deal with violence. Moreover, Islam is often blamed for the political actions of Islamic leaders. This has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with political expediency, he claimed.
Hitchens rejoined by saying that one of the things which makes Islam unique is that, while other religions like Christianity have been confined by secular societies (even ones with Christian-majorities), Islam is not confined in such a way in Muslim-majority countries. For instance, consider the prevalence of Sharia, or Islamic law, which is also on the rise in secular, Muslim-minority societies. Ramadan’s response was to say that like jihad, Sharia, too, could be interpreted in many ways – good and bad. There are those (a small minority he says) who concentrate on Sharia being about punishments. But there are others who take Sharia to be a system of social justice.
Though never saying so explicitly, Ramadan clearly believes Hitchens to be an “enlightenment fundamentalist,” i.e. someone whose belief in enlightenment values is so out of balance that he simplifies ”the other” into a straw-monster, often inciting violence where none would otherwise exist. Hitchens would undoubtedly wear the term as a badge of honor. He clearly exudes a sense of solidarity with other “enlightenment fundamentalists” such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
It is naive to profess to have the ability to judge a debate only on the basis of what is being said by the debaters – especially in light of the substantial evidence regarding Ramadan’s duplicity in addressing Western audiences. In any case, it would be impossible for someone who has spent more than a decade reading both men to strike from memory all that he has learned about their positions – hence, I can’t be an unbiased arbiter. Nevertheless, I believe anyone judging the debate who did not come with preconceived notions would agree that in style (not surprising given Hitchens’ extraordinary rhetorical acumen) and in substance, Hitchens won the debate.
One deduction has to be made from Hitchens’ performance, however. Hitchens was obviously trading on the assumption that no religion can be a religion of peace and that therefore, Islam, like any other religion, is incompatible with peace. In some ways, this is a cravenly way to criticize Islam. There is no comparison, for instance, with the loving and peaceful teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the violent commandments and deeds of the prophet of Islam. There are indeed bolder arguments to be made demonstrating why Islam, all other religions aside, stands athwart any notion of peaceful human coexistence. Even so, Hitch, undeterred by Ramadan, definitely delivered a great performance – which was a great relief to his fans.