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The Stupidest Religion

Christopher Hitchens

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 4.

Christopher HitchensThe French novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose fictions have become celebrated for their unsparing accounts of sexual and political anomie, is now facing trial on one count and widespread vilification on another. In both cases, his trouble arises from what is loosely called anti-Muslim or anti-Arab sentiment. In a recent interview, he referred to Islam as "the most stupid of all religions." In his latest novel, Platform, his leading character expresses delight whenever he reads that "a Palestinian terrorist, or a Palestinian child or a Palestinian pregnant woman had been gunned down in the Gaza Strip."

The French courts have agreed to hear a formal case brought against Houellebecq for the first remark, which is charged as "racism" by four French Muslim organizations. One can make the clear objection to this that expressions of contempt for religion are by definition not racist (unless leveled at religions like the Dutch Reformed Church or the Mormons, which used to be racially exclusive). In the second case it ought to be an axiom that an author is not ipso facto responsible for the thoughts of his characters. The supposedly blasphemous reflections about Muhammad's wives in The Satanic Verses, for example, occur during the dream of a man described as mentally deranged.

But essential distinctions of this kind have little appeal to the righteous. Even in America, still protected by its First Amendment, there is a tendency to assume that anti-Muslim and anti-Arab feeling is the same, even though most Arab-Americans are Christian (as are perhaps 20 percent of all Palestinians), and even though Islam advertises itself as a universal religion. One unhappy consequence of this is that secular and liberal critics often watch what they say, thus leaving the field to fundamentalist Christians, who often attack Islam in the most scabrous and abusive terms. The next stage is, rather depressingly, a counter-attack by aggrieved American Muslim organizations which, rather than exposing the absurd theology of the Christian loons, claim that it is by definition "hurtful" or "offensive" to attack any religion at all.

Thus, under the cover of pluralism a number of dogmatic orthodoxies acquire an undeserved respect and protection. An early example of this was the "shocked" reaction in 1987 when a Jerry Falwell clone named Bailey Smith observed that "God Almighty does not hear the prayers of a Jew." This is the only instance known to me of an anti-Semitic remark having a basis in fact. After all, there is no such person as God Almighty and thus all prayer by all denominations has the same moral effect as aerobic dancing, if not less. But not even secular Jews thought of making this reply. Instead it was back to the discourse of injured innocence and "insensitivity."

I would not want the job of deciding which monotheism, let alone which faith, was "the stupidest." For one thing, one becomes lost in an Aladdin's cave of multiple choice. I do not think that Islam is dumber than, for example, the output of the Jehovah's Witnesses. But I was taken aback in a recent public debate on the aftermath of September 11 when, in answer to a question from the floor, I said that, if the Qur'an was the word of God, it had been dictated on a very bad day. An audible shock passed through a distinctly "Left" and "liberal" audience. And I was promptly accused of "insulting a billion and a half Muslims": a charge as absurd as it was flattering.

Islam makes very large claims for itself. It claims direct divine revelation and inspiration and, depending on which sura or hadith you emphasize, it appears to warrant or at least countenance global proselytism. Its adherents can hardly complain if these tenets are subjected to close scrutiny and even to vivid disagreement. And perhaps a reader can tell me if there is any Muslim country where it is a punishable offense to ridicule or denounce non-Muslim beliefs, including agnostic or atheist ones. The only societies where such cases can be heard are multi-religious systems, which are almost by definition based on secular laws. Many such laws protect ethnic minorities from threat or intimidation, precisely because a member of such a minority is vulnerable for something that he or she cannot alter. That is not the case with weird and optional belief, such as the conviction that one's presence on Earth is due to a heavenly plan.

The British government, too, has recently proposed a law to protect the feelings (or, if you prefer, to subsidize the self-esteem) of religious groups. This would merely extend an already stupid and anachronistic Blasphemy Act, which used to defend the susceptibilities only of Christians and was thus sectarian as well as censorious. But perhaps I can be forgiven for being especially sad about the pious developments in France, which was the first European country to emancipate the Jews and the first to proclaim a secular republic. It's distressing to think that in the birthplace of Voltaire one could not safely utter an equal-opportunity "ecrasez l'infame." 

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation and a professor of liberal studies at the New School in New York. His most recent book is Why Orwell Matters.

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