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Opening – Christopher Hitchens

“Assalamu alaikum” and “Shalom.” Welcome back to the United States. Thank you, Laurie, for your introduction. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, for coming. I have to be brief, so I’ll be terse. Like many students of religion, I’ve spent a lot of time lately, as you should if you have the opportunity, with Professor Durman McCullough’s history of Christianity, a marvelous work of scholarship and literature written by a mainstream believer, extraordinarily broad and deep, in which he ponders one very important question, the only one I’ve got time for now: what happened to the word “Christendom”? Remember, it used to be such a term; it used to extend across the world, and the hope was that it would extend even further than it was neurotically used to mean those areas of human civilization and areas yet to be civilized, of course, where the word of Jesus Christ reigned or would reign, and it’s all gone. The word is never used except historically or sarcastically now, and Michalek doesn’t say it ended because of the Crusades; that didn’t kill it. Not because of slavery mandated by Christianity; that didn’t kill it. Nor the mass murder of colonial subjects in the yet-to-be-Christianized world; that wasn’t sufficient. He didn’t really end, he said, till 1914 when all the Christian empires of the world, Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, Britain, and Russia, all of them commanded by Christian Emperors and calling upon their subjects as Christians, went to war with each other and very nearly destroyed the whole human civilization and certainly reduced it to a point where we can’t guess where we might be if it hadn’t been for this extraordinary I break of barbarism and algebra system and of Stalinism, of which it was the seedbed as well.

I mentioned this partly because I want to maintain that there’s no such thing as a religion of peace by definition and second to point out in hand that it’s best historian has to admit something that if I was a Christian would make me humiliated, but because there was another Empire involved in that war, the Ottoman Empire, which also came to an end. Its other name was the Caliphate, the Muslim Caliphate. He went to war on the side of German and Austrian imperialism and Hungarian imperialism, and it lost, not just the war, having proclaimed a worldwide jihad against Christianity except for German and Austrian and Hungarian Christianity, which were its allies, and it didn’t just lose the war but by 1924 had been dissolved by the Turkish leadership. Parature had lost the caliphate, and that’s the only one that still has supporters. The other Christian and religious empires have all gone, but the Caliphate still has pads, not just in the Muslim world, sometimes referred to by Muslims as the DAR al-Islam, the house of Islam, but also in what some Muslims called the dar al-harb, the house of war, the part of the world that isn’t yet Muslim. The little Caliphate clubs in London, now in Berlin and elsewhere, quite important ones, and what I want to know is why that is and what we should think about it.

Believers in this fantasy, have Lauri spared me the need to say much of this, have committed extraordinary atrocities in Istanbul, in Madrid, in India, in the Philippines, in Indonesia, and of course in our own fair city, and the pretext for it varies. The excuse for the mass murder can be that Australia has helped East Timor become independent from Indonesia.

They can be. Newsweek has printed a full story about the desecration of a supposedly holy book. You never know what it’s going to be next, but everyone knows to be careful about it, and everyone understands that the threat of violence that backs it is believable. And that’s my opening position. Now, you will say – I can hear it already being said – you may be saying it already to yourselves, because the defense mechanisms kick in. And in any case, Laurie already said it for you. And I hope Professor Ramadan won’t feel the need to say it again, but if he does, fair enough. You may say, ‘Ah, that’s not the real Islam. Those aren’t real Muslims.’ Now, isn’t that a fascinating objection? Is there anyone in this room (I exempt Professor Ramadan because it’s his turn to speak next) who would care to arbitrate that question? Who is to say? Where is the authority that defines who is a true son of the Prophet or true interpreter of his work? Part of the problem, to begin with (and it’s part of the problem because it is a religion) is that it’s perfectly true to say we don’t know who the true Muslims are. How right that is. Who speaks for it? There’s only the second problem with defining Islam as peaceful. Only the second problem. The defining it is peaceful has to do with the fact that it’s highly fissile and highly schismatic. That there is a civil war going on within it. The religion of peace, as we speak, at least one civil war between the votaries of this religion of peace is already taking place. And some of it is exported outside that world into ours. Very salient fact.

The first reason, though, is this: Islam makes very large claims for itself. Very large claims indeed. It claims to be the last and final religion, the last and final revelation. When you see bumper stickers – everyone says you can’t reduce major things to a bumper sticker – it’s not my idea to have bumper stickers saying Islam is the solution. It’s a well-known slogan, actually. If parties associated with the Muslim, they say Islam is the solution for everything. It takes care of all your life and the one to come: sexuality, political economy, banking, diet, relations with other religions – everything. It’s a total solution. What is creepy about the word ‘total’? Hope I don’t have to tell an audience like this. It’s the first five letters of the word ‘term’ ‘totalitarian’. It’s absolute. It’s all-inclusive. It’s unanswerable. And oddly for a religion that makes such large claims, notice another thing about Islam: It doesn’t particularly like having these claims questioned or scrutinized. In other words, this, as there just is with all religions, an inverse relationship between the claims they make and the evidence they can produce for them. You must have noticed that with Islam, a younger religion and perhaps, therefore, more in its first flush, there’s an extraordinarily strong willingness to say that any challenge to its absolute claims is, by definition, profane. And profanity and blasphemy can be the antecedent to very severe punishment and often are, for Muslims and for non-Muslims. And this is not a road of peace, in my submission. That’s my first point completed. The claim to govern everything from hygiene to sex and the afterlife, which contains detailed prescriptions for the good and bad versions of itself, strikes me as somewhat so-charged heresy. And they’re both based upon two very, very questionable and not very peaceful concepts. One is the idea of a perfect human being, the Prophet Muhammad.

And the other is the idea of a perfect book, Quran the recitation. Now, the category ‘perfect human’ – primary door mammal – and the category ‘flawless book’ that could possibly not use any kind of change, revision or editing, are categories that do not exist. There are no members of these categories. Therefore, any challenge to this faith is bound to lead to heresy and to schism, and it does. And just as all forms of absolutism and totalitarianism, leader worship and revealed truth, unalterable text always do, because they can break, perhaps, but they cannot bend. And thus, the latent potential of violence within them, among them, as well as within them, is very great. And at any change, at any moment, someone is in danger of being accused of being an apostate or an unbeliever. This week, the Coptic Pope of Egypt, Pope Shenouda, who represents 10 million Egyptians, was hustled onto Egyptian TV. He’s not asked honorable that often, I’d only use even asked on this time. I mean, he was told he’d better come on. Why is the leader of Egypt’s huge Christian minority suddenly compelled to make a TV appearance? Because one of his bishops had said in an interview that he thought that some of the verses of the Quran showed signs of having been added later on and to be later accretion. And Pope Shenouda was asked, forced under the television, to say it’s not that didn’t happen. It’s it couldn’t have happened. You shouldn’t even be discussed. So that it is has to be claimed, even by non-Muslim subjects of Muslim states, that there is, after all, because no Christian claims this about the Bible anymore, no Jew claims it about the Pentateuch.

After all, yes, there is just one book that’s completely word and letter perfect from the first time it was not even written down but recited. Now, demands that you believe the impossible, do not lead to peaceful outcomes, nor do they lead to peaceful or tolerant regimes. And I’m not going to ask you which Muslim country you would like to live in. I don’t know whether Professor Ramadan will tell us which one he would pick if he had to, because I don’t have to ask you a question, I that was already in your mind. Can you wind up now? Yes, I can dilute, I can. Yes, and we’ll shall, shall in fat.

Sexual repression doesn’t lead to peace. The idea that women are inferior to men is a profound cause of unease, let’s say the least of it. All religions make some form of this claim. Islam seems to make it less apologetically than most. Claims that the world will come to an end in apocalyptic form which will lead to the victory of one religion or another, not peaceful either. It’s possible, perhaps I haven’t exhausted all my mass, that the end is teaching of battle stories to children only and the stories of lethal feuds from seventh-century Arabia don’t lead to peace. Or the forcing of children to memorize and retell such stories by rote doesn’t lead to peace either. Yeah, it’s arguable the peace isn’t attainable at all. It may be argument some forms that, sometimes in places, that religion is deemed desirable, but it will not come by the fanatical adoption of a man-made text and a man-made supreme leader. Nothing but war and tyranny has ever come from the adoption of formula like these.

The only way to moral and intellectual satisfaction, even temporary (which is only temporary), of any kind at all is to come to those who are willing to take the great risk of thinking for themselves, at all hazards, and trying to share the benefits of that tolerance and open-mindedness with others. And with that, for now, I rest my case. Thank you very much.

Rebuttal – Christopher Hitchens

Well, I also don’t think that the motion, if that’s what it is chosen for this evening, is a particularly good one. But I knew about it as long as Professor Ramadan did. I did at least agree to speak to it in spite of that reservation. And I make this not just as a point of self-pity, but because, for example, someone in this great city who’s become used to making nice these days, Imam Rauf, who describes himself as both founder and visionary of whatever the downtown establishment is now to be called, wrote an article – pretty sure it was on the eve of Yom Kippur – for the New York Times in which he said, when you think about it – this is the one of the most hand-washing statements I’ve yet heard him make in the make-nice department – “When you think about it, our word Islam is an almost exact translation of your word Shalom.” I didn’t say it. I’ve never heard anyone else say it. It isn’t true. Among other things, Islam may have some relationship to the word Salaam, which can have some relationship to the word prostration or religious observance. It may. But we know what Islam means, is intended to mean, and does mean is surrender to God, acceptance of God. Surrender, sometimes translated as submission, but in any case the resignation to the divine will. Again, not, in my opinion, a prescription for peace. But that isn’t my only objection to it. I don’t think that objection or fatalism or the prostration before a divine, or let alone before holy men who are interpreting the book, is a recipe for good health of any kind, mental or physical, since we’re talking about the Greek concept of the body and of the Spirit and of virtue. Just get that out of the way now.

You’re right. I was surprised to find myself saying, Professor, when you say that the problem is not the book but the reader, in the case of the Koran, that is certainly true of me. It’s true, probably, of every book I’ve ever read, that there are difficulties I have with it or capacities I don’t have with which to approach it, to understand it. But if I’m reading the Quran, I certainly say, “Well, I can’t tell whether this book is the Word of God or not. I can only doubt that there is such a thing. But I can hope that this was a bad day for God, kansai, and I can hope to live in a country where I can say that and get applause. Ah, yes, and even mirth. And don’t think that isn’t a precious thing. And don’t think it’s being compromised. I’m coming to that. I don’t like the idea of a paradise reward for martyrs. Don’t like it. It’s not me somehow. Don’t like the account gently. I don’t like the early accounts of village squabbles with the local Jews who’ve taken a look at the new claiming to be the Messiah and decided about him what they decided about the previous claimant: he’s no good, not up to snuff. Do you think the Jews are ever going to be forgiven for that, by the way, for rejecting two in a row? I don’t think so.

I don’t see why they should hope for forgiveness either. And still, I’m allowed to stand here and say this, and there are many parts of Europe where I couldn’t do that anymore, or I’d have to be very careful in who I invited for the audience. I couldn’t do it easily on the air, couldn’t do it easily in print, couldn’t do it easily in public, couldn’t do it on certain campuses, couldn’t do it with certain publishing houses. Now, all of this has been done to us by the wrong Muslims. Well, let’s get together then, isolate who these wrong Muslims are who’ve imposed a culture of violence back to censorship upon us, and let’s get rid of them and have an honest discussion about the text and the reader. And I think the ball is in your court, Professor, on that. Just to stay with my own profession, the thing I know best, not one major media outlet, print or broadcast, has yet shown you what the Danish cartoons actually look like. Yale University Press, which commissioned a book on them which was to include the cartoons, as how could it not, eventually, panicked and published the book without the cartoons over the objections of its author. Everybody knows what I’m talking about. The President of the United States and head of the Joint Chiefs a few days ago was so pulverized with fear that they had to address personally, in pleading tones, a Christian nutbag in Florida who might have been or might not have been about to commit a minor act of blasphemy. Is this the culture that Islam wants us to have in relation to it? One of, if you like, preemptive submission, pre-emptive cowering, backed by the fear of force? Because that is not a multiculturalism, that’s nothing like the gorgeous mosaic that’s actually the absolute negation of what a multicultural system would be like. And a multicultural system has to look rather askance, I think, on a religion whose preachers and websites openly make threats against people like myself, against the Jewish people, against the Hindus who haven’t seen even monotheists can be killed on almost any pretext, and against the wrong kind of Muslim.

Now, Professor, don’t – I’ll say this as mildly as I can – don’t some of you may not be aware that you were in NYC. I don’t want to increase the area of unexpected offense-taking that’s been so hugely broadened by the sensitivities of a religion that has the answer to everything, but I’ll just say I don’t greatly care to be told, as if I didn’t know, that an Iraqi life is as precious as an American one. And as someone who’s visited Iraq quite a lot, had the occasion to think about it a good deal, wonder if you could mention anything United States has done in Iraq that is remotely as criminal, as sadistic, and as violent as the blowing up of the mosque of the golden dome in Samara, one of the holiest sites in the Muslim world, callously blown up by Sunni forces in alliance with forces who perhaps did not agree with them for once on this, was a sure cig Baathists, probably. They got the weapons in that high explosive from them. That makes it worse. Surely intending to start, and successfully in fact initiating, a civil war in which countless thousands of people have been killed, religious processions have been just fired upon, funerals have been fired on, Qurans without number of course being incinerated, much more importantly children, old people and civilians. Now, where is the Sunni fatwa against this conduct? Where is it?

Where is it? Where is the authoritative statement of moral outrage in the civilized world saying, “This is not acceptable behavior for followers of the Prophet”? I missed it, and apparently, so did the followers of the Prophet because they keep on doing this all the time. They were doing it before the United States got to Iraq, and they’ll be doing it after we’ve gone. So, I’m sorry; I won’t be talked to in that tone of voice, and I want to know. I repeat my question: who has the authority to issue fatwas? Is it Sheikh Qaradawi, who sometimes very much expressed respect, who on al-jazeera gives advice on all kinds of things, some of them innocuous sexual matters, and so forth? Doctrinal rulings, sometimes upon the legitimacy or otherwise of suicide bombing if directed at Israelis, not just Jews – I know no one draws the distinction. On the other hand, Hamas, which does the suicide bombing, doesn’t draw this tension.

If I can’t issue a fatwa against Hamas if I’m a Muslim, if there’s no one who will and they won’t, surely someone could say, “We don’t think Hamas should have on its website and manifesto the reproduction of the protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Christian fascist fabrication that is one of the warrants for the Nazi extermination solution.” I mean, surely that’s a question for the UN anti-racism Committee on a spare day or, since that spare day never seems to come, for some Muslim authority to say, “No, brothers, don’t do that.” It doesn’t come; it doesn’t happen. Look on the website; it’s still there now. You would do better, I think, professor if you identified yourself as a member of a very small and critical and endangered minority, someone who really is against all this and will say so. I will also decry the fact that the religion itself can’t seem to throw it off, but you seem to have that a little bit both ways now, yes. So, then my question stems: if you want diversity as much as the professor does, as much as I’m sure many people here do, religious diversity, cultural diversity, what you need for it is this: you need a secular state with a godless Constitution like this one. To choose to speak as you did of the Ottoman Empire as a place where there were not just Muslims but Christians and Jews is either not to know yourself or to expect others to have forgotten or not to know what it meant to be a non-Muslim under the Caliphate or under any similar theocratic Muslim Authority to this day. Know what we need? What secularism is the only guarantee of religious freedom and yours and that of every other Muslim. We will defend, but you won’t be surprised that we have some questions for you.

In the meanwhile, thank you.

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