Hay Festival: Tom Holland Gives Christopher Hitchens Lecture


Bumping into Peter Hitchens after his General Election discussion, and Tom Holland delivers the inaugural Christopher Hitchens Lecture on Deradicalising Mohammed.

It’s like a book camp holiday at Hay, as you look to see what talk you haven’t booked, rush to get a ticket, listen then queue to get your book signed. Collapsing drunk on words whirling through your mind, inside your tent, at the end of the day. An intelligentsia assembly line has been constructed on a welsh field. What motivates the workers here to unite is the inspiration of ideas and personality of the speakers. 

I bumped into Peter Hitchens having bought his “The Rage Against God” and mentioned our conversations on twitter. His bug bear is people not engaging with what is said, and the block button will follow if they do not. His analysis of British politics explains why I do not belong to a political party – it’s not about what citizens or activists think. Money and interests talk over us, and the Conservatives are playing New Labour so well Labour did not have much to say – while all turn a blind eye to mounting debt (national and private) that may lead to another financial crisis on the horizon.

One festival goer remarked feeling dejected by such talks. Yet the truth helps us see what may come, and at least puts things in the proper perspective. She had just come out of Tom Holland’s talk on deradicalising Mohammed. Forget the reformation Ayaan Hirsi Ali talks of – the salafists are that historical parallel and the internet has taken on the role of the printing press. If we wish to deny Jihadists the role model of a violent warrior prophet we have to acknowledge that the historical Mohammed hardly exists. Instead we rely on bibliography and sayings collected two hundred years after his death.

This is not without challenges – it questions a literal interpretation of Mohammed’s life. It suggests that accounts may be wrong, unreliable or deliberately bogus. Or as Tom put it: rather than treated symbolically they started in modern times to be taken literally. An academic understanding can reveal and centre Mohammed in his time – and if we can get over the “Great man” idea of historical figures with him – we might end Mohammed as the pin up for bloody jihadists to emulate.

Yet the real catalyst for peace and the transformation of ideas in the Middle East will have to be a despair of bloodshed. A point which might take way too many lives in the years to come. Tom mentioned the thirty years war. Where I differ, he does not think ground troops would help the situation against ISIS. In the thirty years war great powers got involved, but the bloodshed escalated rather than helped. Hearing Tom speak you can feel the emotion as he talks of the people being killed, and historical sites threatened. After the talk people spoke about his gentility. They warmed to him during the talk.

In the social media and blogosphere exchanges to do with Islam, I cannot help but feel that is the spirit we need more of, even if we disagree with each other.  

I spared a thought for Christopher Hitchens – this was the first memorial lecture in his name at Hay. Two completely different personalities are Holland and Hitch. Yet neither shying away from a controversy. 

It was a honour to have heard all three men above speak in person in my lifetime. For what gives me hope in these times are people facing the issues and using their intelligence and humanity to get through them. 

If you want to debate ideas, Hay is the place to come.

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

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Email: JSargeant78@gmail.com 



Filed under Hitchens, Religion, World

5 responses to “Hay Festival: Tom Holland Gives Christopher Hitchens Lecture

  1. I attended Tom Holland’s lecture today and having read his book “In the Shadow of the Sword” I knew it would be impressive. There were however a some surprising and gaping holes in his analysis. He claimed that secularism was a culturally Christian creation and that (in answer to the last question from the audience ‘what do we do about the ISIS slaughter and mass rape’) he said (in effect) ‘leave it a few centuries and hope Islam sorts itself out’. He didn’t seem to acknowledge that the only effective fighting force against ISIS are the Kurds whose very secular forces have been remarkably effective in NE Syria especially around Kobani despite having rudimentary weapons and being cold shouldered by neighbouring Turkey. The Kurds don’t seem to figure in Holland’s ‘sweep of history’ analysis even though their semi-autonomous enclave of Rojava is surely a model for the whole Middle East and quite decoupled from Western traditions. When Tom Holland said ‘leave them to it’ I should have shouted out ‘arm the Kurds!’ as the session ended but an English reserve prevented me.

    • His point as I mentioned, was outside intervention via boots on the ground increasing the bloodshed rather than diminishing it – citing the thirty years war as an example. Rabbi Sack gave a similar prognosis that his “revised theology” (bible warn against sibling rivalry which Christianity, Judaism and Islam are like) to remove “altruistic violence” against them (bad) to protect us (good) would take time till people no longer wanted to use violence.

      I feel to defend territory you need boots there and equipment in place. Once a town is entrenched by ISIS and civilian population is still in place, the body count goes up retaking. We desperately need to contain ISIS to reduce that. This will need outside involvement and assistance.

      Holland’s point is we can be active in the academic field in studying Islam and Mohammed, while civil society must engage against extremism.

  2. Hitchens V Hitchens on Russia https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OL15-TULjEQ

    And this was Chris in 2009. I assume Peter would disagree.

    Anything about Russia at Hay, John?

    • I didn’t see anything the few days I was there. Certainly would have been interested. Most political discussions regarding General Election not foreign policy. Just finished Peter’s “Rage Against God” which gave more of a feel for life under communism than my degree course on did.

  3. Pingback: Tom Holland delivers the ‘Christopher Hitchens Lecture’ from Hay Festival 2015. | Dialogue Ireland

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