In Arab culture there is a strong imperative to not speak ill of the dead, but I’m going to have to make an exception for Christopher Hitchens. Knowing Hitchens, I’m sure he’d approve. Hitchens had a tenacity and ferociousness that would not compromise for considerations of tact, tradition, or politeness. That was something I admired about him, and will pay tribute to it in the only fitting way possible.
I only met Christopher Hitchens once, on March 9th, 2006. The New York University Remarque Institute held an event entitled “What Happens Now? Israel And The Palestinians after Gaza, Sharon, And Hamas.” Hosted by the great late Tony Judt, it brought Hitchens to speak along with Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury and Israeli journalist Gideon Levy.
The discussion was very interesting and intelligent, until Hitchens took the pulpit and started hyperventilating about Hamas winning the Palestinian elections. He went on for 20 minutes on the evils of religion in politics. A theocracy, he said, could never make peace with its neighbors and will always discriminate based on idiotic religious grounds. Palestinians thus deserved to be isolated and punished by the USA for choosing a religious regime.
After his talk, I took Hitchens aside and asked him why he didn’t feel the same way about the other religious fundamentalist regime in Palestine: Zionism. If he was so concerned about Hamas’s religious fundamentalism, why was he silent about the religious fundamentalism that is driving millions of Palestinians out of their homes, occupying their land and denying them freedom because of their religion? Shouldn’t America deal with Jewish fundamentalism in the same way he wants it to deal with Islamic fundamentalism?
For once, I saw him flustered and speechless. It was clear he genuinely had not thought of this and now he felt thoroughly embarrassed. He smiled, looked around, tried to find something to say, but came up with nothing. He then tried to ignore me by going back to his comfort zone and engaging in a shouting match with a Muslim and calling him a “fucking peasant.” (That man was Ashraf Laidi, a currency trader and author whose CV indicates he’s never really been a peasant.) I asked Hitchens if he’d make my point in his next talk about Palestine/Israel, and again, he had nothing to say. I ended with: “well, either tell me why I’m wrong or admit you’re wrong and that in your next speech you’ll denounce Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism in the same way.” The stupid smirk left his face, and he walked away.
This was post-2001 Hitchens. The over-riding directive of his life was to make money by pleasing American right-wingers by dressing up their idiotic nationalism, chauvinism, and jingoism with Big Words and an English accent. It was a highly rewarding career, because he sold to morons who watch Sean Hannity the illusion that they are not complete cretins, and they pay top dime for that sort of intellectual deceit.
Clearly, it was not part of the New Hitchens act to include material critical of Israel, since the awful Islamo-Fascist-Satan-Beast had to be defeated at all costs. This life-long crusader against religion had perfected his new act to the point that he had stopped noticing, entirely, that Israel was a state based on religious discrimination, and was championing its case as it went on ethnically cleansing people who came from the wrong religion. Still, I’m sure on his death bed he would have imagined that this was all worth it, since it helped Israel and George W. Bush, the two greatest forces of secularism of our time, to spread the gospel of enlightenment, freedom, rationalism and tolerance to the “fucking peasants” of the Arab world.