Is Nick Clegg Britain’s Moqtada al-Sadr?

Drawing a comparison between the Iraqi and UK elections.

The Conservatives have been scaremongering about a hung parliament again, claiming it will lead to "paralysis at the top", a "lack of accountability" and a "political stitch-up". Hey, why stop there? Why not also claim that a hung parliament will lead to pestilence, plague and biblical Armageddon?

I happen to agree with the calmer analysis produced by Peter Riddell of the Times. Hung parliaments, he argues, can be "made to work" and can produce "effective" coalitions. He points out:

Many countries most highly rated for good government, such as Germany, New Zealand and the Scandinavian nations, have multiparty rule.

One country where a hung parliament hasn't, however, been good for business or for the nation as a whole is the one we recently (and illegally) invaded -- Iraq. And, reading Patrick Cockburn's piece on the "Iraq election row" in the Independent today, I couldn't help but notice the rather odd parallels between the Iraqi parliamentary elections and our own (minus, of course, the Mesopotamian violence, bloodshed, corruption, vote-rigging and sectarian hatreds).

A bit of background: the 7 March parliamentary election in Iraq produced a hung parliament in Baghdad, with no single party or grouping securing a majority. The incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki, has been described as "difficult to deal with, quick-tempered and deeply suspicious of others". Who does that remind you of?

Right now, he is trying to cling on to power despite coming second in terms of share of the vote, if not seats. To stay in office, however, his governing State of Law party needs the support of its ideological and sectarian allies in the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which came third in both seats and votes. But guess what? The anti-American Shia faction led by the "firebrand" cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is the single largest party in the INA, and the Sadrists, says Cockburn, "are adamant that Mr Maliki step down as prime minister".

So is Nick Clegg -- having said at the weekend, "You can't have Gordon Brown squatting in No 10" -- Britain's Moqtada al-Sadr?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Creative Commons
Show Hide image

No, Christopher Hitchens did not convert to Christianity on his deathbed

From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one. 

The suggestion that atheist writer Christopher Hitchens converted on his deathbed was inevitable. When the evangelical Christian Larry Taunton appeared on Newsnight last week to discuss his new book, he suggested that “the Hitch” was “contemplating conversion” in his final days. The collective sigh from his fans was palpable.

That particular claim is uncontroversial. Of course Hitchens “contemplated” Christianity – to say so simply suggests he had an open mind. However, the book goes further, and claims that Hitchens began to doubt his convictions in his final days. Taunton writes that: “Publicly, he had to play the part, to pose, as a confident atheist. In private, he was entering forbidden territory, crossing enemy lines, exploring what he had ignored or misrepresented for so long.” The book is littered with similar insinuations that he was, so to speak, losing his faith. His close friends, those he wasn’t paid to spend time with as he was with Taunton, deny this completely.

Naturally, the book has sparked a host of rumours and junk articles that suggest he converted. Not one to let a cheap shot slide or leave an insinuation untouched, Hitchens was forward-thinking enough to not only predict these accusations, but deliver a perfect pre-buttal. When Anderson Cooper asked him, a short while before his death, whether he had reconsidered “hedging his bets”, he responded:

“If that comes it will be when I’m very ill, when I’m half demented either by drugs or by pain when I won’t have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumour later on, because these things happen and the faithful love to spread these rumours.”

If that isn’t enough, however, his wife has made clear in the strongest possible terms that talk of a softening on Christianity and a deathbed conversion is entirely untrue. “That never happened. He lived by his principles until the end. To be honest, the subject of God didn’t come up.”

The spreading of fallacious rumours of deathbed conversions by the religious is predictable because there is so much historical precedent for it. Many of history’s most famous atheists have suffered this fate, so, in a sense, Hitch has now been inducted into this hall of infamy alongside the likes of Darwin, Thomas Paine, and David Hume. In God is not Great, he wrote that “the mere fact that such deathbed ‘repentances’ were sought by the godly, let alone subsequently fabricated, speaks volumes of the bad faith of the faith-based.”

Now, not for the first time, Hitchens has fallen foul of this bad faith. After all, what can be more abhorrent than baying for a man to abandon his lifelong principles when he is at his most vulnerable, and spreading callous lies when he can no longer respond? It speaks for the complete lack of confidence these people must have in their beliefs that they strike when the individual is at their least lucid and most desperate.

Hitchens felt the bitter end of the religious stick when he was dying as well, and he responded with typical wit and good humour. He was told that it was “God’s curse that he would have cancer near his throat because that was the organ (he) used to blaspheme.” His response? “Well, I’ve used many other organs to blaspheme as well if it comes to that.” One suspects that he would have rubbished recent talk in a similarly sardonic fashion.

Likewise, for a man who was not afraid of a provocative title himself (see: The Missionary Position, No One Left to Lie to) it would be reasonable to think he’d accept his own life as fair game. From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one.

Fortunately, we are blessed with the wonders of the internet, and Hitchens can respond to these claims as Thomas Paine and David Hume could not – from the grave. His prediction and preparation for this speaks of an intellect like no other. In a posthumous debate he still wins out.