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Misreading Christopher Hitchens

Say what you will about Christopher Hitchens—his views on Israel, most exhaustively rendered in a book he co-authored with the late Edward Said, leave much to be desired—but he is the most eloquent and passionate opponent of Islamic jihadism writing today. He is also a passionate critic of all forms of religious hucksterism, and offers the most concise and devastating rebuke of Al Sharpton in the current issue of Vanity Fair: “A man who proves every day that you can get away with anything in this country if you shove the word ‘Reverend’ in front of your name.”

Anyone who writes honestly and bluntly about Islam inevitably is labeled a “racist,” an appalling misunderstanding of the word, since it can be applied only to those who abjure someone for the pigmentation of their skin, not their belief system. In a diatribe on the popular and engaging blog associated with the online magazine Jewcy, Richard Silverstein, a contributor to Tikkun magazine*, furthers the misunderstanding. After the obligatory tributes to Hitchens’s “high-toned English accent” and “mellifluous” voice (which apparently trick all those gullible fools not as smart as Silverstein), he takes issue with Hitchens’s contention that, “Islam, by the way, does not mean ‘peace.’ It means ‘surrender,’ ‘prostration.’”

Hitchens, as anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of Islam will know, is literally correct. But it is the figurative meaning of this contention that so upsets the morally and culturally relativist Silverstein. He writes:

What is misleading about Hitchens’s statement is he neglects that “Islam” connotes the peaceful “surrender” of a believer to the will of God, but not the “surrender” of a non-believer before the force or power of Islam. Such peaceful surrender, which some see as the essence of faith, is a feature of many of the world’s religions. Hitchens is spinning Islam as a religion of violence and domination. So it’s convenient to distort the religion’s name as well. We see here the power of a guileful ideologue used to stir the pot of intolerance and Muslim-bashing.

Leave aside for the moment that Islam, at least to untold millions of its practitioners, most certainly does “connote” the violent “‘surrender’ of a non-believer before the force or power of Islam” in a way that is most certainly not “a feature of many of the world’s religions.” What Hitchens really is getting at—and what Silverstein apparently cannot understand—is that for many Muslims, “surrender” means to abandon one’s reason and belief in common humanity to an ancient and conquering creed. It is for this reason that precious few Muslim-majority states are secular democracies that respect human rights and minority faiths. Alas, this is a truth that Silverstein and the useful idiots at Tikkun will never acknowledge.

* CORRECTION: Richard Silverstein is not associated with Tikkun, but has a blog entitled Tikun Olam. I regret the error. But his views are indistinguishable from those espoused in that publication, and I stand by my contention that he and its editors are “useful idiots.”



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