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Christopher Hitchens and the Mosque Controversy

September 6, 2010

Christopher Hitchens manages to say something intelligent about the mosque controversy:

Those who wish that there would be no mosques in America have already lost the argument: Globalization, no less than the promise of American liberty, mandates that the United States will have a Muslim population of some size. The only question, then, is what kind, or rather kinds, of Islam it will follow. There’s an excellent chance of a healthy pluralist outcome, but it’s very unlikely that this can happen unless, as with their predecessors on these shores, Muslims are compelled to abandon certain presumptions that are exclusive to themselves. The taming and domestication of religion is one of the unceasing chores of civilization. Those who pretend that we can skip this stage in the present case are deluding themselves and asking for trouble not just in the future but in the immediate present.

Of course, the United States already has a significant Muslim population — 0.6 percent of the population, or 1.8 million, according to the CIA Online World Factbook. So Hitchens’ question is already upon us: “what kind, or rather kinds, of Islam” will that population follow? Predictably, last week’s outbursts of violence and denunciation are producing an Islam that finds inescapable the conclusion that “Americans Hate Muslims.” In a Star-Tribune editorial of that name, Ahmed Tharwat sardonically advises Muslims to “abandon your mosques, and celebrate Eid Al-Fitr only in shopping malls. Americans will be more likely to accept you as a faithful consumer than as a faithful Muslim.” If some Americans have conflated Islam with jihad, Tharwat has returned the favor, reducing American culture to mere consumerism — an eye for an eye.

Treating Muslims with basic respect and dignity sounds desirable enough. But isn’t there a grain of truth to the stereotype of the Muslim fanatic? At the very least, don’t certain features of Islam — Sharia law, the burka, and so on — directly conflict with American values? Yes there is, and yes they do. While I’m not sure I agree with Hitchens that Muslims must be “compelled to abandon certain presumptions,” the need for dialogue and vigorous debate is clear.

But is it possible? Hitchens is apparently among those who would insist that Islam is, by its very nature, intolerant of criticism and therefore only responsive to brute force. Two points. First, having tutored college-level Muslim students for much of the past decade, I have simply not found this to be the case. (Though the students did take strong offense to Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.) Just a few months ago, a Somali imam told me that Islam accepts disagreement and that the Koran says not to “force your religion on anybody,” but to “tell them about it.” Second, I have often found the people who make this argument to be highly intolerant of criticisms of capitalism and American hegemony. Should they, too, be dealt with by brute force?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2010 8:44 pm

    “the need for dialogue and vigorous debate is clear.”

    That’s all well and good but what happens after? You can’t have dialogue forever…what happens if the two sides fundamentally and unequivocally disagree. What happens if the extreme Muslims overpower the moderate Muslims?

    This reminds me of the interwar years, when the French youth would rally for disarmament in the 20s and early 30s. That didn’t work out to well for them did it?

    I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try…but we also have to be prepared for when it doesn’t work. We need to have a benchmark to tell us that it hasn’t worked and won’t work. I think we are near that benchmark, if you really study Wahhabi-ism.

  2. September 21, 2010 8:47 pm

    “Just a few months ago, a Somali imam told me that Islam accepts disagreement and that the Koran says not to “force your religion on anybody,” but to “tell them about it.”

    The same can be said of Christianity but that doesn’t stop the Left from their anti-Jesus rants and criticism. Which makes your second point sound something like this.

    “Second, I have often found the people who make this argument to be highly intolerant of criticisms of the State and need for more regulations.”

  3. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    September 22, 2010 9:29 pm

    It is not at all clear to me that Islam is “fundamentally and unequivocally” incompatible with American values (as I explain in the last paragraph of the post).

    As for your second comment, I agree that left-wing criticism of religion is often shrill and unfounded. Yet Christianity is not currently the target of violent outbursts or militaristic rhetoric. That’s what worries me — not some obnoxious comment about the Pope’s UK visit from Bill Maher or Christopher Hitchens.

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