As you may have heard, the Student Assembly’s senate funded a debate between noted columnist and pundit Christopher Hitchens and College of William and Mary government professor Lawrence Wilkerson last night. While I am fully in support of raising the profile of the College by bringing notable speakers and performers to the ’Burg, I find some of Hitchens’ views problematic.
Hitchens is a notorious anti-theist, and as such has written extensively about the evils of all organized religion. However, his flourishing rhetoric and persuasive style when applied to Islam can have real and dire consequences in today’s charged political environment. Hitchens cannot seem to separate current political realities from core religious beliefs in the Muslim world. And at a time when Islam is struggling to preserve its own soul, promulgating his views is perilous for all of us on the sidelines.
Hitchens has written three columns since early August for online newsmagazine Slate.com about the proposed Park51 Islamic Community Center, better known as the “Ground Zero mosque.” While Hitchens has risen above the fray of the current political discourse on the matter, his opinions offer a much more subtle and dangerous form of suspicion and intolerance.
In one column he knocks the usage of the term Islamophobia, positing that it is not irrational to fear Islam when there are radical websites, DVDs and imams that threaten and attack pluralism and diversity. This smear is far beneath a man voted as the world’s fifth top public intellectual by a 2005 Foreign Policy magazine poll. In an age in which anyone with internet access can launch a website, blank DVDs sell for pennies on eBay, and crazies of all religions claim they’re God’s pulpit, it is both foolish and irresponsible to conflate the fringe radicals of any group with its mainstream.
In another column, Hitchens writes about how the growing American Muslim population will need to be tamed and domesticated with respect to certain views among its adherents. He enumerates practices like forced marriage, compulsory veiling of women and censorship, still prevalent in parts of the Muslim world.
However, Hitchens ignores the fact that these restrictive policies are, for the most part, found in autocratic states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia which enforce archaic interpretations of Islamic law. These states lack the pluralism and openness that is so essential to the success of any religion in modern times. Islam does not need the West to reform it, because wherever Islam exists in a free society, it is as modern, open and free as the Quran originally intended it to be.
It is clear that Hitchens has neither gone beyond the headlines, nor done his homework. Religious studies professor Tamara Sonn, an Islamic scholar who has served as a consultant to U.S. military intelligence agencies and testified before various Congressional subcommittees, disagreed vehemently with Hitchens’ views.
“After 9-11 he fell into the trap of taking terrorists’s rhetoric at face value,” she said. “The fact that they claim that their motivation is religious should not confuse a careful scholar. Careful scholars know that whatever ideological name terrorists put on their motivations, the core issues are political.”
One extremist ideology, the perversion of jihad, points toward a future clash of civilizations between the West and the Muslim world. However, there is a growing belief among Islamic scholars, best characterized by Reza Aslan in his book “No god but God,” that there is no pending clash. Rather, the current turmoil in the Muslim world is the final stage of a bloody, but necessary, Islamic reformation between rationalist and traditionalist scholarly points of view.
Admittedly, there are elements of hate and intolerance with traditionalist grounding that cloak themselves in the name of all of Islam. However, that does not begin to approximate the full picture. Hitchens’s decision to accept, at face value, the dictators, terrorists and extremists who claim the mantle of modern Islam — while defying all of true Islam’s core principles — defames all of Islam, including the moderate supermajority which has nothing in common with the extremists.
When such a respected intellectual ignores the shades of gray in this Islamic reformation, how can we expect the general public to capture them? In portraying Islam as a religion of intolerance and backwardness, while ignoring all of the elements of equality and progress which are central to the religion’s founding, Hitchens is ensuring the polarization of the dialogue so critical to the success of this reformation. While I applaud the Student Assembly’s senate for bringing such an important intellectual to campus, I exhort students to look past the biting wit and flowing rhetoric to see the real-world implications of Hitchens’s ideas.