Hitchens v. Ramadan debate: Can Islam — or any faith — be called a ‘religion of peace?’

Ruth Graham Contributor
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Is Islam a religion of peace? Last night, Christopher Hitchens took on Tariq Ramadan in a spirited debate at 92nd Street Y on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, 110 blocks north of the proposed mosque in Lower Manhattan that helped turned the summer of 2010 into an angry national discussion on that very topic.

Hitchens and Ramadan have met previously — you can read Hitchens’s account of a past encounter at this link — and both of their answers to the question have been well documented. Spoiler alert: Hitchens says “no”; Ramadan says “yes.” Last night the two men sat on either side of moderator Laurie Goodstein, religion reporter at the New York Times, who gave an elegant introduction, kept everyone within some rough time limits, but otherwise mostly stayed out the debaters’ way. The event was simulcast in Colorado, Rhode Island, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Chicago, and West Nyack, N.Y.

Ramadan is a Swiss public intellectual and the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the radical Egyptian political group the Muslim Brotherhood. A defender of contemporary Islam, his stance is that serious Islam is not incompatible with Western civilization. In 2004, as Ramadan was preparing to become a religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, the Bush administration revoked his American visa under a section of the Patriot Act that allows the barring of foreign citizens who “use a position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity.” Now a professor at Oxford and allowed to enter the U.S. as of this spring, he has remained a polarizing figure for the both the left and the right.

Hitchens, a prolific polemicist, is well known as an atheist and enemy of all religious practice, as well as a fluid writer on a stunningly wide variety of other political and cultural topics. Last night, Hitchens was completely bald from recent treatments for a bout with esophageal cancer, but there was no other sign of weakness in him. He has the zeal and outsize self-assurance of a convert.

For much of the night it was hard to tell if Hitchens’s target was Islam or religion as a whole. His opening statement — after a semi-sarcastic “As-salamu alaikum” and “Shalom” — swiftly rejected the debate’s primary question by announcing that “There’s no such thing as a religion of peace, by definition.” The statement ended with the crowd-pleasing conclusion that “The only way to moral or intellectual satisfaction comes to those who are willing to take the great risk of thinking for themselves” — which in Hitchens’s view can only lead to a rejection of religion.

Ramadan disputed Hitchens’s characterization of Islam as essentially authoritarian. “The problem isn’t the book,” he said. “The problem is the reader.”

True enough, Hitchens parried. When he reads holy books, he said, “I can’t tell if this book is the word of God, but I can hope that today was a bad day for God.” When the audience laughed and clapped, he congratulated them for living in a country in which such a jest would be greeted with laughter and clapping rather than violence. This could have kicked off an endless loop of self-congratulatory laughter and clapping, but the moment faded.

Instead he breezed through a litany of offenses perpetrated on Western society by Islamist radicals, including the fact that Yale University Press declined to publish the controversial Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed for fear of a violent reaction. He mentioned the Hamas’s publication of the vile “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” on its website, the destruction of the Golden Dome in Iraq, and American fears of Muslim blow-back against the planned Koran-burning held by a “Christian nutbag” in Florida last month.

While Hitchens wants to toss Islam (and other organized religion) into the dustbin of history, Ramadan said he wants to preserve it by pressing for reform from within. The problem is not Islam, he reiterated, but some of its practitioners. “Islam is dealing with human beings,” he said, “and if you deal with human beings you deal with violence.” Thus he defends the Palestinian “resistance” while condemning violence. When he mentioned a European cleric with 40 million followers who regularly condones suicide bombing of targets including Israeli women and children, he again condemned the violence but insisted on being able to engage with the cleric on other topics. His response to Hitchens’s damning list of violent acts was that those incidences are not about religion, but about the “political instrumentalization” of ill will harbored against the west.

Though Ramadan is right that it’s nearly impossible to separate some essential nature of a religion from the politically and culturally driven actions of its current followers, two things were going on during the debate that made his response feel unsatisfactory. During the whole event, two NYPD policemen stood silently in uniform in the back of the room; a security guard told me as the audience trickled from the theater that it was a “precautionary measure.” And meanwhile on television, at the exact hour of the debate, millions of Americans watching the Fox musical comedy “Glee” saw a high-school quarterback bite into a grilled cheese sandwich emblazoned with an image of Jesus and pronounce it “super delicious.” This morning, the streets are calm.