Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens on the state of the fight against radical Islamists around the globe.
HH: We begin, as we do on Wednesdays when we are lucky with Christopher Hitchens, contributing editor to Vanity Fair, author of God Is Not Great. Last time you were here, Christopher Hitchens, you were here for three hours. You’ve recovered, I gather?
CH: Yes, with your delightful Presbyterian partner.
HH: Well, it’s good to have you back, but we’re not going to do God Is Not Great today.
CH: Fair enough.
HH: I’ve got things of this world. First, I want to go to the current issue of Vanity Fair, which has some letters in it, one of which is about your June article Londonistan Calling, in which I ask Christopher Hitchens, writes Peter Smith, to turn his marvelous brain to the subject of what steps he believes should be taken by the British government in response to the situation in the UK, which he described so vividly. I, for one, would value his thoughts on the matter very highly. I’m a British citizen who’s lived in the U.S. for 42 years. I assume he rules out mass deportation of British Muslims, especially the younger ones who were born and have the right to live there. I assume he would not imprison anyone because of what he believes. I assume he assumes that tens of thousands of young Muslims in the UK are not fundamentalists who hate the status quo. Fair questions, Christopher Hitchens. What would you say?
CH: Fair questions and lend great point and vividness by recent terrible developments, as you know.
CH: They include not just murder and suicide attacks by members of the medical profession, of all things, the fellow of which I’ve written also this week, but also threatened to kill Her Majesty, the Queen, for knighting Sir Salman Rushdie.
CH: So…and this is my opinion, only a harbinger of how bad things could get. Look, there are two related matters. First is that there is a big population of people from Pakistan, unfortunately, they tend to come from one rather remote and backward area of Pakistan, and maintain a rather clannish culture in some ghetto areas of some Northern cities, which is a problem in itself, because it results in things like honor killings, incestuous marriages, and so forth. And the second, the idea of Londonistan itself, which is an expression coined by a French intelligence officer, for the number of people who use London as a base, who are exiles from their own countries. Well, exile is a polite word for it. People are wanted for very serious crimes in their own countries, who’ve taken advantage of the laxity and tolerance of Britain’s asylum tradition to re-set up their organizations in London itself. It seems, by the way, that the most recent attacks come from people who are not immigrants in the usual sense, and not from Pakistan, but they’re people from elsewhere, from Iraq and from India, who may have entered the country with the purpose of doing this. So there are two separate and related problems.
HH: Right. Which one, what would you do about not the ones who have come in for the intense purpose, or the express purposes of conducting jihad, because that’s easy. That’s an intelligence service challenge to find them and imprison or export them. But more importantly, those home-grown British citizens who go sudden jihad syndrome.
HH: How would you combat that?
CH: Well, it’s…it is, in effect, impossible to combat unless one contemplates exactly as the letter writer hints, measures that would be, one hopes, unthinkable, such as deportation, internment and so forth, collective punishment which I would be opposed to, I have a revulsion to in any case, which I also have a very strong feeling wouldn’t work. Administratively, things like that are always bungled, and the innocent get rounded up and maltreated, and the real hard-liners manage to slip away. Long run, what has to happen, I think, is the defense of the idea of a secular, multicultural country, where, for example, we don’t allow people to set up separate schools that turn into medrasas, claiming that they’re faith-based, which is something that unfortunately, the Blair government has allowed to happen, where the full weight of the law comes crashing down on anybody who kills their daughter for an honor crime, or subjects anyone to genital mutilation, or any atrocity of that sort. And again, there are liberal multiculturalists who say well, it’s their culture, we’ve got no right to tell them what to do. That has to stop right there. We’re very lucky in Britain in having a good number of brilliant, educated, sophisticated people from the subcontinent, like Hanif Kureishi. I’m mentioning some well known authors.
CH: Salman Rushdie himself, of course, Monica Ali, who wrote the brilliant book Brick Lane about the Bengali community in East London, Nadeem Aslam, who’s book everyone should try and read, all your listeners should get, it’s called Maps For Lost Lovers, unbelievably beautiful and stirring and worrying account of life in one of the Muslim ghettos in Northern England where, and he was pointing out to me the other day when I was talking to him, that 10% of the populations, that that 10% is responsible, because of repeated marriages to first cousins, for about 80% of the deformed births.
HH: So you’re in essence…
CH: So this is a cultural question, to do with assimilation and rescuing people from the backwardness that they’ve, in many cases, come to England to escape.
HH: But you’re throwing up your hands, though, Christopher Hitchens, and saying in the long run, we’re all dead, as Cain said, but rather quicker in the long run under your theory.
CH: Well, look, it only replaces the general problem, which is that whether these people live in Britain or in Pakistan, or Iran, or Iraq, the shrinking world, in the sense of the easiness of crossing border, the porousness of borders, the easy availability of air transport, and so forth, means that we are living on the same planet with this problem, whether it happens to be in an English town or not.
HH: I would have thought you might have brought up John Burns’ piece in the New York Times, or some of the dispatches of Michael Yon, if you read Michael Yon, which point to an Anbar Province and Diyala Province that the Sunnis have become quite disgusted with al Qaeda.
CH: Oh, well, I was hoping we were going to come onto that.
HH: Yeah, because I think actually…
CH: Sorry, I thought we were just talking about England for the moment.
HH: Okay, but the same dynamic, I think, holds true in England that there might be, through the progressive attention spent on these atrocities, a revulsion within the Islamic world.
CH: Oh, no, you can be absolutely sure that that is in fact true, and that a lot of the information that we get come from within those communities, and that’s why I stress the names of my friends Hanif and Salman and Mr. Aslam and so forth, because they demonstrate this precise fact. They’ve been a lot more militant in opposing this kind of clerical fascism than a lot of self-centered liberals have been.
HH: And has British media done its job in focusing on what these communities are like, and what these radicals actually say?
CH: I don’t monitor it regularly, so I’m probably not quite the right person to ask. The information I get, though, comes from people who are well known in Britain, people with Islamic and subcontinental upbringings and backgrounds. And certainly, these are people who do have an audience, and whose opinions are sought and are available, yes.
HH: All right, let me go to the story…
CH: But the analogy with Iraq isn’t precise, but look, it’s true in all countries. It was true in Algeria, for example, that one of the reasons that the fundamentalist insurrection was defeated was because it completely alienated everybody in Algeria.
HH: What do you think…will the attack on the Red Mosque by Musharraf prove to his advantage or his disadvantage, Christopher Hitchens?
CH: Well, there comes back to me a phrase from the great Benjamin Disraeli, who once said like all weak governments, that they resorted to strong measures. Musharraf let these people humiliate him for weeks on end, and now I have a terrible feeling that he’s made yet another klatch of martyrs, that this Islamic fundamentalist movement didn’t make enough of the cult of martyrdom as it is. I mean, these people were loud, you know, while they were holding onto that mosque. They were allowed to receive ambassadors.
CH: Actually received the Saudi ambassador, who was disgracefully allowed to go and talk to them as if it were an independent state. Extraordinary tolerance was extended to them. And then that having not worked, police state measures are used. This is exactly the wrong combination with which to face, I think, this sort of challenge.
HH: There is today in the Guardian a story that one of Iran’s most revered Shia critics have condemned the knighthood of Salman Rushdie as very, very vast action against Islam. His name is the Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, and he told Sky News when your Queen awards Salman Rushdie, and turns him into a knight, what do you expect? This is blasphemy, this is an insult to all the prophets of the world. Apart from the fact that this issue insults all the religions of the world, this will also give a pretext to the terrorists. The terrorists can use this as a pretext to do something against Britain. This act of the Queen is a very, very vast action against them. Your reaction, Christopher Hitchens?
CH: There’s nothing like seeing a sobbing crocodile, is there?
CH: I imagine he knows where some of these terrorists are. I imagine that he’s given them a hand in his time. What authority does this man have to speak to us? 20 people are being sentenced to death by stoning in Iran this week for offenses against chastity, and they dare to lecture us on who we can and cannot give a literary…excuse me, which literary figures we can or may not decorate? The whole thing’s absolutely astonishing. Incidentally, awarding a knighthood to Salman makes it no worse, even in their terms, because it’s his very existence which they object.
HH: Great point, excellent point. It’s pretext.
CH: And it was said by the government of Iran, if you can call it a government, in the very first place, that he had in any case been paid by the British government to write it, and of course, by the Israelis, to write the novel as an attack on Islam. So they emptied their quiver of missiles already…
HH: Long ago.
CH: Nothing they could say now could possibly come up to what they started off with. It’s paranoia and racism.
HH: I’ll be back with Christopher Hitchens.
– – – –
HH: Christopher, are you tired yet of the book tour business, and debating God or not God?
CH: Oh, no, I never get tired of it. I’ve had, as well as your very nice pastor from Orange County, I’ve debated rabbis and Baptist ministers and a Buddhist nun. I know it sounds like the opening of a bad joke, but…charismatic Catholics. And I think I may have improved my own arguments a bit, and I’ve combed a few mistakes out of the book, and that sort of thing.
HH: Well, I’ve got a request from David Allen White, a professor of English at the Naval Academy, to join you in debate on the radio, so we’ll have to set that up. He’s quite the traditionalist Catholic.
CH: Oh, well, bring him on, please.
HH: All right. We’ll do that. We’ll set that up. But now back to Hitchens columns, past, present and future. I want to go to your column about Tunisia, from the July issue of Vanity Fair. We haven’t talked in a bit, so I’m behind on my column reading. It’s a fascinating portrait of Tunisia. And at the end, you seem, what you write, an enclave of development, Tunisia is menaced by the harsh extremism of a desert religion, and ultimately by the desert itself. As with everything else in Africa, this is not a contest we can view with indifference. But you’re also ambivalent, well, not ambivalent, you’re critical of the fact they’ve got president for life after president for life. What ought the West to do about places like Tunisia, which are clearly not democracies, or even headed that way, but nevertheless are not Islamist breeding grounds, either.
CH: Well no, Tunisia’s an extraordinary success story in many, many ways. I mean, I think I give the main statistics in the piece. The highest life expectancy in Africa, are over 70, about 90% home ownership, almost complete schooling and higher education for girls.
HH: Less than 4% of the population under the poverty line, yeah.
CH: Yes, and the veil is not seen. Polygamy…it’s the first Arab country to ban polygamy. And it shows something. You can see anywhere you go in the Muslim world, the more secular a country is, the more happy it is, and the more prosperous and the more democratic. And indeed, Tunisia is about to sign, well, has already signed an association agreement with the European Union, which will mean in the long run that it won’t be possible to have a president who gets 90% of the vote at intervals of rather shady elections. I mean, the democratic spirit will spread. I’d like to think that it would spread without necessarily having to be inculcated. I think it can be a mistake to identify the democratic principle which is innate in people, I think, with something imported or imposed. And so that consideration…and then we have to sympathize with this government in this respect. It has had to fend off a challenge from hard-line, brutal, murderous Islamists who blew up the Synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia. It has the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world as well. And it tried to destroy the country’s open-minded approach to the world’s tourist trade. I think we have to save…and incidentally, I also mention in the piece that the people doing this, and encouraging it, are based in London. You know, until September 11th, they were allowed to have a radio station in London beaming jihadist propaganda into Tunisia, a disgraceful state of affairs. That, we can put a stop to, I’m sure.
HH: And now, but doest that mean…well, let me ask you this way, what do you think governments like those of Tunisia feel when they see the United States Senate sawing off the legs of a forward policy in the war in Iraq?
CH: Well, the Tunisian government got itself into trouble in 1991 by essentially supporting the U.S. coalition for the recovery of Kuwait, but it bravely did do that. They try and avoid comment on the present state of affairs in Iraq, I’m sorry to say. But of course, it’s not just a question for Tunisians, it’s a matter for everyone in the region to see if the United States would buckle that easily when our soldiers have, after a lot of trial and effort, and error, I have to confess, been coming out with what looks like a winning formula for isolating and destroying al Qaeda in a major society. This, if it were to be achieved, would be a prize beyond value.
HH: Then what do you attribute…to what do you attribute Harry Reid’s policy, and the wavering of people like Peter Domenici of New Mexico, George Voinovich of Ohio? What’s going on there?
CH: Well, I’m afraid that the zeitgeist tells them that they are right. I mean, almost everybody, including, I’m sorry to say, the administration, talks about everything in terms of withdrawal. I mean, even the administration, when it talks about the surge, says the better it works, the sooner we can get out of there. I mean, implicit in all this is the mentality I keep attacking, which is the subconscious idea that in this war against our deadliest ever enemy, there’s an over here and an over there, rather than a global struggle. And…
HH: Do people not understand that? Or do they…I just gave a speech…
CH: They don’t…I tell you, Hugh, they don’t.
HH: You see, that’s what…I think they do.
CH: If we were out of Iraq, it would somehow…it’s like the tree in the forest falling, and there’s no one to here it. It doesn’t make a sound. If we would be gone, it wouldn’t matter what happened there, because it wouldn’t be happening to us. Now that is what is meant by the isolationist mentality.
HH: I’m much more cynical. I think Harry Reid and the Democrats figure if we can just force Bush to lose, we’ll get power, and then we’ll wage the war.
CH: Well, I wish I believed that. I believe maybe the first part of it. They certainly are trying to leverage the war for political purposes. That’s their right, but I think it should be called that. I wish I did think that they would then prosecute a campaign to defend the Iraqis democrats against this hideous foe.
HH: I just can’t believe anyone is so stupid…
CH: It’s like believing that John Kerry had a plan for victory that he was only prevented from implementing by losing the election. I somehow can’t bring myself to believe that.
HH: Well, I can’t bring myself to believe anyone is so stupid as to believe it would be a good idea to withdraw from Iraq with al Qaeda nested in Anbar and Diyala, and Muqtada al Sadr in charge of Baghdad.
CH: When people are begging us to stay, and bringing us information about these people who they’ve seen up close.
CH: And who they realize are poison, and an imported poison, too. So if given time, given, in fact, one simple declaration, the United States will never abandon Iraq to Osama bin Laden, forget it. That will never, ever happen. Then, people will not wonder what’s going to happen next. Well, if they think the United States is only going to be there for a little longer, then what will they go and do? They’ll go and make their peace with the local al Qaeda guys.
CH: They’ve had 35 years experience of cringing to dictators and bullies and thugs. They’ve only had a very brief holiday from that, which wasn’t allowed to go on for very long, because a whole new reign of terror was begun. You can’t blame if they decide to make accommodations with the other side, as will neighboring governments. This would be a defeat on an absolutely epoch-making scale. And I get letters and e-mails from people in Anbar all the time, saying look, don’t you doubt it, we are kicking al Qaeda’s behind here. We’re really getting on top of them. We don’t give them any peace.
HH: I just heard that from a senior Marine Corps commander as well, so I…
CH: Yeah, these are guys who have no reason to lie to me at all.
CH: They’re not young men full of bravado, and they’ve been very sober and tempered by what they’re doing. And what they’re doing is the most important job any American is currently undertaking. And all they can get from here is a ceaseless, driveling, drizzling pessimism and defeatism. I just don’t know how to denounce it loudly enough.
HH: I’ll join you in that. Quick 30 second comment on Scooter Libby’s commutation?
CH: Well, I think it should have been a straight out pardon, because I think it was, as it were, a victimless crime. The prosecutor was never able to find that any law had ever been broken. He always knew that if there had been a leaker, it was Richard Armitage. He knew it before he started his investigation. He felt he couldn’t come up with absolutely nothing, so to borrow a vulgar phrase, Mr. Libby was the fall guy. But the fall guy for the prosecutor, not the administration.
HH: Christopher Hitchens, always a pleasure. Columns are always in Vanity Fair, the book, God Is Not Great, the subject of once and future debates on the Hugh Hewitt Show. Thank you.
End of interview.