Hitchens vs Hitchens: a clash of civilisations
Following the death of Christopher Hitchens, we republish Brendan O’Neill’s interview with him and his brother Peter from 10 years ago.
In November 2001, two months after 9/11 and a month after the start of the Afghan War, Brendan O’Neill interviewed brothers Christopher and Peter Hitchens and discovered that few of the certainties of the left-right divide held sway in the post-9/11 world. Following Christopher’s death yesterday, we republish the interview below.
15 November 2001:
‘The real question is not can the West win its war on terrorism, but can those in the West who care about secularism make common cause with those in the East who care about secularism and get rid of those no-good Islamic fascists in the Taliban?’
Christopher Hitchens is not known for mincing his words. The British-born journalist and author of the newly published Letters to a Young Contrarian, abandoned ‘drab Britain’ for New York’s ‘dreamworthy skyline’ in 1970, and has since mouthed off, annoyed and outraged his way to the top - becoming a Vanity Fair columnist, ‘darling of the American left’, and anti-imperialist, anti-Mother Teresa, anti-Clintonite ‘thorn in search of a side’ (1). Now Chistopher’s biggest anti is the Taliban: ‘They are submerging Afghanistan under totalitarian control - otherwise known as Sharia law - and they must be stopped. “Smash the Taliban” would be a good slogan.’
Despite the neverending assurances from Western leaders that the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam, Christopher would prefer a ‘more open quarrel with religion’: ‘When I first heard Bush and Blair going on and on and on about how this is not a war with Islam, I thought, good, not all the efforts of multiculturalism have been wasted. But then I started to fear that what underlies it also is the feeling that we don’t want a quarrel about religion, and that automatically means undermining secularism and the secular project - which is surely what Afghanistan needs.’
Not everybody agrees - like Christopher’s brother Peter. ‘I don’t like the forces of secularism’, says Peter. ‘Secularism is one of the things pulling Western society apart and I don’t quite see how you can fight for something like secularism.’
Peter is the Hitchens brother who stayed in Britain - the one-time student leftie (who said to a politics lecturer in the 1960s, ‘Sorry I’m late, I was trying to start the revolution’), turned right-wing Mail on Sunday columnist who supports gun ownership as a means of ‘reducing robbery’ and who tried to become the Tory candidate in 1999’s Kensington and Chelsea by-election because he thought Michael Portillio was ‘too wishy-washy’. Not surprisingly, brothers or not, the ‘darling of the American left’ and ‘one of Britain’s last remaining right-wing pitbulls’ don’t always see eye to eye.
I would have loved to get the clashing siblings into one room. But even talking to them separately gave an insight into the right/left, British/American, anti-imperialist/pro-imperialist divide that the Hitchens brothers have come to represent.
Christopher says, ‘I don’t regard Islam as the enemy, I regard religion as the enemy’ - but Peter reckons a big problem with the West’s war on terrorism is precisely its lack of a strong religious-based ideology capable of challenging the beliefs of the Taliban: ‘Despite being a civilisation based upon Christian principles and living in the afterglow of the Christian civilisation, we’re not particularly Christian anymore. We’re not even pagans - we’re just consumerists. I really don’t think we have much of an ideology with which to combat the immensely powerful and, in some ways, rather impressive faith of the Islamic world.’
So does Peter want to see that most unfashionable of things, a ‘clash of civilisations’ - despite UK prime minister Tony Blair insisting everywhere he goes that this is not a religious war, while US president George W Bush has been forced to scrub the words ‘infinite’, ‘justice’ and ‘crusade’ from his war dictionary for fear of upsetting his ‘Muslim friends’? ‘As far as I’m concerned’, says Peter, ‘the West’s progress, its relative liberty of thought and action and an awful lot of the other things that make it attractive, are based on the fact that it is Christian….or was Christian’.
It turns out Christopher also wants a more upfront, in-yer-face clash of civilisations - but of a different sort. ‘If they want to have a clash of civilisations then I’m absolutely ready to have it with them’, he says. ‘But they won’t - or can’t - declare it as such. I think that does show a lack of confidence on their part in taking up religion and its backwardness, with Bush and Blair constantly saying Islam is not the problem, when to a certain extent I’m afraid it is. To see this conflict through means declaring that it’s a war between those who hold on to religious certainty, faith and the interpretation of one book, and those who don’t - and rephrasing it in that way.’
‘I think it is perfectly appropriate’, says Christopher, ‘to say we are opposed to the idea that any society can be run by one holy book - it’s a bad idea and it just don’t work. I would far rather hear some more robust views like that.’
But both Peter’s war between the Christian West and Islamic East and Christopher’s clash between progressive secularism and backward religiosity look unlikely. From day one, the war on terrorism has bent over backwards to avoid being seen as a war against Islam - or even against Afghanistan. Blair boasts about reading the Koran while Bush modifies war statements with references to his ‘friends, the Afghan people’. And you only have to look at what happened to Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi - chastised for daring to suggest that Western society was superior to Islamic society - to see that a war in the name of Western progress and secularism is not on the cards.
Meanwhile, the war aims in Afghanistan seem to change daily - first it was about hunting down Osama bin Laden and destroying al-Qaeda; then it became a mission to overturn the Taliban; later it was about getting the Northern Alliance into power; recently it’s been about not getting the Northern Alliance into power….. Not surprisingly, Peter has had problems pinning down the point of the West’s war: ‘I don’t know in this case what the West is or what war is or what terrorism is. The terms have not been defined closely enough.’
‘The war aims have been contradictory’, says Peter. ‘If you’re against terrorism, which I actually am, then it should be a consistent thing. The most profound thing you have to do is not give into it.’
Is Peter accusing the Western coalition of giving into terrorism? ‘Well, what this seems to be developing into is a realpolitik historic compromise between the first world and the third world. I mean, the former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, who is now one of our great friends, is proposing a visit to Baghdad to say hi to Saddam Hussein. All it needs is for Saddam to reveal he has bin Laden holed up in one of his palaces and the circle’s complete - the war against terrorism will finally have recruited the person it is supposed to be exterminating.’
Christopher also has a problem with ‘terrorism’ - the word, that is, not the phenomenon. Peter might relish in his ‘firm, consistent’ opposition to terrorism ‘in all its guises’, but Christopher sometimes can’t bring himself even to write the word down - describing the ‘use and abuse of the word terrorism’ as traditionally ‘a way of criminalising the left and revolution’. ‘I’ve occasionally had to use the word terrorism’, he says, ‘because the discourse is so blunt now that you may as well use the language everybody else is using. But I’ve never in my life typed or uttered the word without a mental reservation. It is just too crude, loaded and politically biased a term.’
Then there’s the problem that Christopher doesn’t think that everything lumped under the term terrorism is always such a bad thing: ‘I am so strongly of the opinion that we should have forced a Palestinian state 20 years ago and that many of those who fight for such a state are right. I do not for one minute believe that those who resist Israeli occupation in Gaza - even with suicide attacks - are comparable to al-Qaeda.’
Peter couldn’t hold a more contrary opinion if he tried - describing Palestinian organisations as ‘murderers’ and ‘outright terrorists’. ‘The Israeli policy of targeted killings - or even political assassination if you like - is a legitimate response to terror’, says Peter. ‘There’s been a huge desire to make bin Laden the chosen culprit for 11 September precisely because he isn’t particularly connected with the PLO. But in the Middle East, terror is an accepted method for an awful lot of people and is either sponsored or tolerated by an awful lot of regimes. To concentrate on bin Laden and the Taliban is to ignore the fact that there are a lot more obvious culprits and suspects unbombed, uninvaded and unreplaced elsewhere in the Islamic world.’
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But Christopher doesn’t get too carried away defending those whom others label ‘terrorists’. Instead he says that one of the big problems with describing the Taliban and al-Qaeda as ‘terrorists’ is that it doesn’t go far enough - the word just doesn’t capture what he calls ‘the true horror of that regime’. ‘To call this terrorism is actually to understate it, bizarrely enough. Terrorism used to be an overstatement, used to write off certain groups. Now it’s an understatement for what I would call an Islamic version of fascism.’
This isn’t the first time Christopher Hitchens has used the f-word. He used it in relation to former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, once described Margaret Thatcher as a ‘British version of fascism’, and now calls the Taliban ‘fascism with an Islamic face’. What was it George Orwell said about abuse of the word fascism? How ‘the word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable”’? But then, Christopher certainly sees the Taliban as ‘something not desirable’, describing it as an ‘abhorrent regime’ that should be ‘brought to its knees’. Brother Peter, however, just can’t work himself up into such a sweat about the Afghan regime.
‘I don’t much care about the Taliban’, says Peter. ‘Obviously, if I were confronted with somebody doing what the Taliban do I would be disgusted, but it’s only the existence of global TV that makes me aware of it and my awareness completely outreaches my ability to act. It would be dishonest to claim that I care realistically - one cares about the things one can realistically affect.’
Christopher might denounce the Taliban as fascistic, but according to Peter, ‘It’s just moral posturing to go on about how loathsome you find the Taliban. There are people down the end of town who are just as loathsome as the Taliban and about whom we do absolutely nothing. It’s fanciful to cheer on the forces of righteousness in Afghanistan when you won’t do anything about what’s going on in Brixton.’
So is there anything the transatlantic brothers agree on? Both are concerned about restrictions and clampdowns on civil liberties in the UK and USA post-11 September - but even here their motivations seem to differ. Peter is concerned that new laws and ‘changing how we live’ are dangerous signs that we are surrendering to the terrorists: ‘If you oppose terrorism, then you don’t give into it, and you don’t fundamentally alter your way of life because of your fear of it. If you do, you are in fact doing the terrorists’ bidding.’
Christopher, meanwhile, worries about the state of liberty post-11 September - particularly in the USA: ‘I am very concerned about the collective punishment of Western civilians by security measures. What we have in America is a very bizarre combination of maximum alarmism with maximum reassurance - which means that people are panicking more than ever before. And if I got on a plane now and a hijacker managed to get a box-cutter on, all the security measures would have made sure that the hijacker was the only one on board with a weapon. The chance of being able to mount what has so far been the only successful action against the Taliban and al-Qaeda - which was the passengers’ revolt on the flight that came down over Pittsburgh - has officially been abolished. It is we who have been disarmed, rather than al-Qaeda.’
Talking to the Hitchens brothers, one thing struck me - left-wing Christopher seems to be far more in favour of the war on terrorism and for the destruction of the Taliban than right-wing Peter. Christopher might rather the war on terrorism was renamed Operation Secularist Crusade, but he makes no bones about wanting to smash the Taliban - while the normally gung-ho Peter says, ‘I’m just not convinced by it’.
The problem for Peter is that imperialism just ain’t what it used to be. ‘I’m an imperialist’, he says, unapologetically. ‘I think the imperial era, when Western European powers, and to some extent America, seized territory and governed it, was an enlightened period which did a great deal more good than harm. But I think that playing around with countries, intervening in them, setting up temporary Heath Robinson regimes which then allow you to depart and permit a decent interval before they collapse, is dishonest, cheap and shallow - and I’d rather not intervene at all.’
Christopher, by contrast, thinks it is precisely the sins committed by traditional imperialism in the Middle East that compel us to get stuck in now, in order to save Afghanistan from its past: ‘It is “we”, and I use that term reservedly, who helped to set up the Taliban and keep it in power, so surely that heightens our responsibility to now get rid of it. We should undo this particular American wrong by ousting the Taliban and liberating those who have had to live under it for the past five years.’
But with the continuing confusion over what the war is for, it looks like neither traditional imperialist Peter nor new interventionist Christopher are going to get the clash of civilisations they really want.
The above interview was first published on spiked on 15 November 2001.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
spiked issue: Obituaries
(1) Publisher’s Weekly, October 2001