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.
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