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What Does Christopher Hitchens Know About Islam?

Christopher Hitchens has one of the most beguiling presences I've ever encountered in a media figure. He has that booming tenor that reminds one of Dylan Thomas reciting his mellifluous poetry. I hear he has a similar penchant for the 'hard stuff' as well. The words and ideas flow out of Hitchens mouth smooth as honey. Their power is almost magnetic. The high-toned English accent doesn't hurt either.

But when you step back and really examine what he's saying it's pretty much all bilge. Well, OK, maybe not all. But so much of it is that you feel that smooth, suave delivery is a betrayal or deception of sorts.

So how much does Christopher Hitchens really know about Islam? Apparently, not terribly much. He participated in a panel discussion on Warren Olney's To the Point. Towards the end of the discussion, he responded to a Muslim scholar's claim that Islam derives from the word for "peace." Here is what Hitchens said (audio):

Islam, by the way, does not mean "peace." It means "surrender," "prostration."

As even a Jew who knows any Hebrew can tell you, Islam certainly does derive from the word salaam or shalom in Hebrew. As Svend White, an Islamic studies specialist who writes Akram's Razor tells me:

…One can spin this *somewhat* by emphasizing the fact that the type of "peace" is a kind of surrender…

What is misleading about Hitchens' 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.

Few will argue that there are not serious issues that need to be addressed between Islam and other world religions and that some Muslims defame their own religion by claiming to embody it as they kill the innocent. But Hitchens is merely a provocateur, rather than someone willing to engage in a serious dialogue on the subject.

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