Video: Hitchens and Ramadan Debate: Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

The video of Hitch and Ramadan is further down, and what follows is a report not only on that but the Oxford Union debate recently uploaded, and how they contrast. You can watch the Oxford Union debate here which had the same motion: Is Islam a religion of peace?

Watching the Oxford Union debate it felt opponents of the motion were holding something back in their vigour, with the exception of Daniel Johnston who made clear a need to speak against the motion without hesitation.

The real reason may have been the events in Woolwich only the day before, and fear of repercussion for suggesting that Islam was in total not a peaceful religion. Totality matters because just like any other religion Islam makes universal claims on everything and claims absolute authority to be followed. Adam Deen (Islamic theologian) for the motion made clear that the Koran and Hadith had something to say about just war, social justice and living in peace – with a right to defend itself justly from repression and extermination (pacifism morally wrong he claimed). He could have said it also covered eating, banking, the bedroom and the art of going to the lavatory as well in how Islam advises in total on all things.

It was thinking of the “total” aspect of religion which reminded me of Christopher Hitchens opening his debate at 92Y in New York 2010 on the same worded motion as at the Oxford Union. I realised his main points were not coming through from the opposing side at Oxford (except Johnston). It was like Peter Atkins and Anne-Marie Waters had never seen his debate. I recommend all do watch.

Hitchens V Ramadan video



It was left to Mehdi Hasan at Oxford to point out atheism by its nature had an issue with all religions. It was a point not mentioned by the two/three atheist opponents – that atheists would claim religion makes demands on followers that do not promote peace. Hitchens used this well at 92Y saying before the debate was underway that he mentioned where Christian churches had been used in the Rwandan genocide. Christopher opened with Christendom and the misery it had caused, and the freedom to study Islam in contrast was lacking. Daniel Johnston used that line at Oxford using academic scrutiny of Christianity and how that could not be done in Muslim countries for Islam.

Hitchens argument at 92Y is no book and no man is perfect and flawless. Cannot happen. Once you start claiming it is you demand people to believe the impossible. When you achieve believing the impossible then everything becomes possible. It is a matter of life and death what you believe on these things, with heresy, and apostasy to follow. We are stuck with a perfect text set in stone with 7th century thinking. The golden age to return to.

The counter to perfection is to freethink for yourself, to meet with other freethinkers and work out what is the best way to deal with issues like war and peace, social justice and human rights but no one book or person reigns large as sacred or holy. It seems a better shot than suggesting the main ideas are solved by a man spoken to by an angel, and a book based on an oral tradition of these encounters. Scholarship becomes the law maker, not the people. Theocracy is the system rather than democracy.

It felt watching the Oxford debate as if it was lost before it was won. Daniel Johnston mentioned himself that there was no Islamic theology to back up death to apostates (just hell in after life) but Islamic states nevertheless did it. There they either agreed violence is not the true Islam, or a reflection of extremists. That islamic states had their own culture and Sharia. The motion was therefore a lame duck.

Hitchens’ rebuttal to this is that there is no authority on what makes someone a Muslim, or what is Islam. The Taliban, or Saudi scholars claim a version which is counter to Mehdi Hasan. Both would condemn each other as having lost the true interpretation of Islam as understood by the prophet. The Sunni Shiite schism plays out in bloody retribution and religious claims in the Middle East. No need for a one unifying leadership of a Muslim pope to sort this out, rather the text the faith was based on clearly did not lend to all a peaceful interpretation of living but was used for anything but peace in daily life.

We need to get beyond one text, one totalitarian system way of thinking. Pluralism the idea at 92Y by both speakers to change this way of thinking.

Tariq Ramadan


It takes two to tango, so I must bring in Tariq Ramadan, the proponent at the 92Y debate – the man that Johnston at Oxford calls a wolf in sheep’s clothing for islamism. Where at Oxford, Hasan was good with the fire of a true believer turning on those blaming his faith for all evil in the world done by Muslims, Ramadan was softly spoken talking about the human condition. That religion was about dealing with human issues rather than for him about divine sanctions. Islam dealt with violence and peace because that was innate in human beings. The thing was to examine what was written rather than use to justify bad things. Ramadan also said the problem was not the text but the reader; tell me what you think, I will know how you will read the text.

Ramadan mentioned If he said Islam said something good critics say well he would say that would he not? If on the other hand he said Islamists do something bad then everyone believed that must be Islam – if so then he was defeated before he began to make a case. He accused Hitchens of closing the debate before it had started by framing it that way.

Then through the debate he mentioned other islamic scholars that spoke for democracy. Towards the end of the debate mentioning Sharia, he said that the US clearly had a body of law with which a citizen could obey and use so no need for sharia. Hitchens was not so sure and mentioned Anjem Choudary as an example of attempts to supplement secular law.

The two debates


I appreciate the format at the Oxford Union did not give time for the developed answers, exchange and interaction that 92Y did. The point of information at Oxford for interruptions was denied by both sides to the other when talking, and Hasan was the only one to take on board what the other side said to push his own line home. Hasan was not challenged on suicide bombings – even if we said they were all about foreign occupation their targets went against what Adam Deen claimed were innocents. Nor how using those with learning difficulties by the Taliban and others as remote control bombs was legitimatised by fighting a foreign power.

Someone should have at a minimum mentioned the Islamic idea of martyrdom in the training and thinking of deliberate suicide bombers. Could a religion of peace so easily be used to manipulate people if the message is clearly against violence, a golden thread running through it? Deen’s counter was that pacifism was worse but there were clear rules how to resist. If only he had been asked about suicide bombers and whether the Taliban had a moral right to kill our soldiers and Afghanistan soldiers in Islam.

The most common theme in both debates was disagreeing with the motion question simply because the practise of Islam is not homogeneous. It was therefore destined to fail, because rejecting the motion would mean Islam was an incitement to violence for all believers across the world, a threat that could not be tolerated. A paranoia confirmed no less than by Oxford University that would destroy religious freedom and human rights if we ever accepted that idea. Hasan in closing the debate stated that majority of Muslims are peaceful – do not vilify them opposing the motion.

A typical debating ploy is if you can make the proposition or opposition to a motion a world no one would want to live in you will win whatever arguments happen. Hasan, love him or loathe him, played that to perfection and before Peter Aitkin stood to close for his side it was already game over, Peter not even mentioning that the proposition was Islam and not how Muslims in the UK live their lives. The lame duck motion had already been cooked and served to the proponents to tuck into by then.

I recommend the video here of Hitchens and Ramadan at 92Y – though Johnston and Hasan stand out for the Oxford Union one. Because whilst I think Hitchens wins, Ramadan runs him close and leaves me thinking I need to read up on his scholarship and think about it for myself. There is a battle going on within Islam and I know which version the world needs. One with human rights, liberty, secularism and a touch of humility about itself to spread.

UPDATE: Tariq Ramadan’s meanings by Kenan Malik

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

Follow @JPSargeant78

1 Comment

Filed under Hitchens, Religion

One response to “Video: Hitchens and Ramadan Debate: Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

  1. I’m rather disappointed with the whole Oxford debate, especially the opposing side. It just felt so .. weak, so unstructured, and without depth.

    They could have argued against the points Deen made, e.g. that the peaceful sides pretty much apply in situations where islam is left unchallenged: the instant it is in a position of power, the understanding and peacefulness are not so clear any more, and expansion and war tactics are more present. Abrogation is also an issue here, also with the early Mecca vs the later Medina period, and the shift from spiritual islam to political islam with Muhammad’s new role as arbiter between the conflicting tribes of Medina.

    Second, some of the verses of moderation are usually followed by “but..” verses – e.g. compare 5:32 to 5:33. The whole picture changes quite a lot when seen together.

    Third, the case of hudnas – temporary truces – must also be accounted for, like the ones in sura at’taubah (9) – “until the holy months have passed, then slay them” etc.

    Fourth, If we go to the hadiths, the “invitations to islam” are also ever present: accept islam, pay the jizya, or face war. Some of this must of course be seen in the context of the rashidun and also the ridda (apostasy) wars, and not just during the time of Muhammad, but it is still a part of the history. Islam is clearly expansive and proselytizing – with the sword if necessary, no matter how much 2:256 may claim there is no compulsion.

    Fifth, even if we read the individual verses in their original context, and accept that they apply for historical cases, then you cannot escape the fact that 33:21 tells us Muhammad is the perfect example of conduct. This means that what he did, is an example to follow. If he did so in context A, then muslims are to follow his example should similar contexts appear.

    Related to this: if we must see the violent verses in context and limit them by this, the the surely this must also apply to the verses preaching compassion or goodness. You cannot decide that some verses are universal, and others are contextually limited.

    Sixth, I’m also a bit curious how the introduction by Handley pretty much hammered through that “islam is peaceful, mmkay?”, and went on about how “dar al islam” means “the house of peace”. How many times is this cliche going to be played? Islam means submission to Allah, and the only context you get “peace” in that regard is *if the entire world submits, and there is no more fitnah*. Even muslim scholars are quite clear about this interpretation of things. I even hear muslims argue that hudud punishments would not be a problem in the Caliphate, as there would be no more crime, and hence no need for death penalties, corporal punishments etc.

    And – even if all of the world were muslims, then enter the shia vs sunni conflicts, etc: there is fitnah even within islam!

    To me, taking a step back and looking at islam (The Quran and the hadiths) as a whole is what makes it lacking in the peace, compassion and human rights department – not the individual verses of the sword etc.

    (And all what I’ve said applies to ISLAM – not muslims. These are two different subjects!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s