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Closing Guantanamo

It is the most potent symbol of the abuses of the Bush era: Obama's swift decision to shut down Guan

Before the place closes, I might have a couple more opportunities to get down to Guantanamo Bay. Nothing very much has changed. Some of the ­soldiers have become disillusioned, knowing that their orders place them on the wrong side of history. They talk more, they try to make life a little easier on the prisoners. Their commanders have become more dogmatic, if that were possible, like terriers who refuse to give up a bone.

In a way, I am going to miss Guantanamo. It's an odd ­notion, but I've been there more than 20 times, more than six months in all. Sometimes, the true joy of tilting at windmills comes when there is an ogre in the White House. Now they are gone, George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the entire Axis of Evil.

Only a few days ago, on 20 January, Americans welcomed in the new year with the inauguration of Barack Obama. The new president immediately demonstrated that he means business, taking a break between dances at his ten inaugural balls to start issuing executive orders. The first 24 hours saw four decrees: the closure of Guantanamo Bay (within a year), a review of US detention policies (including the closure of CIA "black sites"), a review of US "transfer" policies (the euphemism for extraordinary rendition), and an evaluation of what position the administration should take in the case of Ali al-Marri, the only person held in extrajudicial detention on US soil for more than seven years in the "war on terror". Obama did more for the rule of law in one day than George W Bush did in eight years.

However, while this may herald a new dawn, we are very far from the end of the day. If there is one lesson that must be learned from Bush's catalogue of mistakes it is that we should not go hanging up the "Mission Accomplished" banner in too much of a hurry. Bush made his infamous announcement on the USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May 2003, only 41 days after the invasion of Iraq. Almost six years later, it is sobering to note that more than 96 per cent of the US and coalition casualties came after Bush claimed that it was all over.

The battle for human rights is no more easily won. It is folly to think that Obama can sign four orders and fix an entire era of human rights abuses. A president, no matter how well-intentioned, can only achieve his goals if he has the necessary information and political support. In terms of information, Obama's limited sources have to be a concern. With each policy review that he has ordered, he has named the players who will issue the report: the attorney general, the secretary of defence, the secretary of state, the secretary of homeland security, the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. For the most part, these are the very institutions that created the problem in the first place. Nowhere does this take into account those who have struggled for change. There are plenty of interest groups opposed to a close analysis of the recent past; others remain convinced that al-Qaeda presents a different paradigm to anything previously encountered, one where the rule of law must give way.

Closing Guantanamo Bay will be a challenge, not least in terms of determining what will be done with the 240 prisoners detained there. The first group is the easiest – the 140 or so prisoners who can just be repatriated. Ninety-seven are from Yemen, and they would be home already if only the Bush administration had talked to President Saleh.

The second group are refugees who need resettlement: there are around 60, most of whom were picked up in Pakistan for bounties. Here, Obama needs help from his allies to offer them sanctuary, and it is sad that the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, announced a few days ago that Britain felt it had done enough already. A country that played so integral a part in supporting the mess created by Bush might feel a greater obligation to clean it up.

Last, there is the group of prisoners who will be tried, perhaps 40 of them. President Obama has ordered that the Guantanamo military commissions be suspended. Now looms the struggle over the formulation of a process to replace them. Even liberals in the US are talking about a security court, a ­notion that would sound Orwellian were it not for the fact that Britain already has such a body - SIAC, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, with all its secrecy and its special advocates, all beyond the public eye.

Obama has also ordered the closure of CIA prisons. This is an interesting comment on his predecessor's candour, since Bush assured us in September 2006 that there were no more prisoners in CIA detention. Indeed, there is no definition of what a CIA prison is: none has ever been designated as such. The overwhelming majority (more than 99 per cent) of the, roughly, 20,000 prisoners still held in US custody, beyond the rule of law, have never been in a "CIA prison". Guantanamo is not a CIA prison. Bagram air base is not a CIA prison, yet the US military continues to hold 680 prisoners without any due process.

What we do know is that, while in US custody, prisoners disappear. Reprieve, together with other human rights organisations, drafted a report called Off the Recordwhich featured 39 people who have vanished in US custody. Only two have surfaced; 37 remain ghosts. The story of Ibn Sheikh al-Libi is an example of how the osmotic pressure of politics can result in prisoners being shuffled quietly off to a terrible fate. Al-Libi was seized in November 2001 and soon rendered by the CIA to Egypt, where torture elicited the "fact" that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were in league over weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Bush cited this as a reason to invade Iraq; the then secretary of state Colin Powell repeated it in the UN. When 14 "high-value detainees" appeared in Guantanamo Bay in September 2006, Ibn al-Libi was not among them; what he might say to a lawyer was just too embarrassing for the administration. So he was rendered to disappear in Libya, where Reprieve has now tracked him down. His story must be told - both to expose the consequences of torture and how Libya is being used to spare Bush's blushes.

Notwithstanding such important individual stories, the directive to close CIA prisons is only of passing relevance. There is also the question of the proxy prisons. The outsourcing of torture and imprisonment was one of the greatest horrors of the Bush years, and there are proxy prisons that have never been part of the public debate, including a particularly unpleasant one in Uzbekistan. Other countries – most notably Jordan and Egypt – continue to serve secret American interests.

It would also be unwise to assume that Obama's policy review is going to eliminate the practice of rendition. This was not a Bush brainchild; as far back as Ronald Reagan, suspects had been "snatched" - the preferred term - from abroad. There was enthusiasm for rendition during the Clinton era. Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism tsar to both Democrats and Republicans, relates an infamous story in his book Against All Enemies:

The first time I had proposed a snatch, in 1993, the White House counsel, Lloyd Cutler, demanded a meeting with the president to explain how it violated international law. Clinton seemed to be siding with Cutler until Al Gore belatedly joined the meeting, having just flown overnight from South Africa. Clinton recapped the argument on both sides for Gore: Lloyd says this. Dick says that. Gore laughed and said, "That's a no-brainer. Of course it's a violation of international law, that's why it's a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass."

The euphemisms - "rendition to justice" is a favourite one, when someone is "snatched" and brought to face trial in the US - cannot disguise the fact that there is no legal distinction that sets it apart from kidnapping.

President Obama has ordered an end to torture, requiring that all interrogations abide by the Army Field Manual. Yet the ink was barely dry on his directive before talk of adding more coercive techniques to the manual began to surface even from within the Obama administration itself, possibly as a sop to right-wing critics. Obama also said nothing about accountability. With a wink and a nod, before his inauguration, there were signs that he had already come under pressure from both sides of the aisle not to look too carefully at the criminal practices of the Bush administration. Nobody in Congress seems to have the stomach for a bloody inquest, and I believe the Senate leadership have indicated that inquiries are not on their list of priorities. Obama's reticence is understandable enough. He is embarking on a daunting mission, and he must seek allies where he can find them. Digging up the skeletons of the past might have suited the Democrats in the run-up to the election, but if they want Republican co-operation now, the prospect is less appealing.

The setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to ensure that the truth comes to light, both for the peace of mind of the victims and so that history can record the mistakes, would be one option open to the new president, and there is no legitimate argument against it. But such a commission will not easily be born. A systematic structure of secrecy - couched in national security terms - may be the most dangerous and long-lasting legacy of Bush and Tony Blair. I have a US security clearance, and while I obviously cannot reveal classified material, I can state without hesitation that the overwhelming majority of it would not remain hidden in a sane world.

Looking to the future, it is enormously exciting to have a US president who is so powerfully in favour of human rights. But it is unclear whether he could sustain his approach in the face of (for example) a further terror attack on US soil. Unfortunately we should not discount the possibility of such an attack. Al- Qaeda must realise that a decent president is a danger to their cause, just as Bush's policies provided the most effective recruiting sergeant to their banner that they could imagine.

Clive Stafford Smith is the director of Reprieve, the UK legal action charity that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantanamo Bay. For more information, see www.reprieve.org.uk, or contact Reprieve, PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640

Road to closure

2002, January First group of 20 prisoners arrive at Guantanamo, deemed not entitled to habeas corpus.
President Bush rules that their standing as "enemy combatants" disqualifies them from PoW status
February Detainees go on hunger strike to protest the ban on turbans
2004, March UK prisoners dubbed the "Tipton Three" are released without charge
June Supreme Court rules that prisoners can use federal courts to challenge their imprisonment
July In response, the Pentagon creates special military commissions to determine detainees "enemy combatant" status
2005, May Riots erupt around the world after allegations of abuse of the Koran at Guantanamo
2006, June US Supreme Court rules that military commissions used to try prisoners are illegal and that the Geneva Conventions apply to detainees
2008, June Supreme Court rules that prisoners are entitled to habeas corpus
July Reports that US military based an interrogation class on study of Chinese torture techniques
July Guantanamo war crimes trial begins against Osama Bin Laden's former driver
2009, January Barack Obama announces Guantanamo to close within a year and suspends all ongoing military tribunals

Kate Ferguson

Inside guantanamo/Bisher Al-Rawi

was arrested in November 2002 during a business trip to the Gambia, along with a colleague. He was first taken to Bagram air base, then on to Guantanamo.

We were flown to Guantanamo shackled, cuffed, blindfolded. We had protectors on our ears. It was extremely uncomfortable. If you wanted to use the toilet, someone had to pull your trousers down for you. It was extremely degrading.
When we got there we were put in solitary confinement. To be thrown into a dimly lit cell, just a small box, life is really very alien. You feel hopeless, like this is your grave. We stayed in solitary confinement for a month, then went out into the general population [of the camp]. You were still in individual cells but you could see people. Really, the day was full of nothingness. It revolved around when they brought us food and the nothingness in between. The leisure time was a big thing - to be let outside - but even when you were there you were just by yourself in a fenced area, 10ft by 15ft. There really was no information about what was going on - there was just interrogation.
Something happened which made me realise it was a game to people. Before my lawyer had visited, he sent me a letter explaining I was not to take part in the tribunal process, because it was illegal. Before I received the letter, they came to us. We were told a couple of weeks before that we'd have a tribunal. We had to prepare our own defence - but without access to pen and paper.
Then the day after my tribunal I received my lawyer's letter saying not to take part. The letter had been postmarked two months before. That's when I knew they were not trying to do the right thing, and then I lost faith.

Inside Guantanamo/Moazzam Begg

Moazzam Begg was detained by Pakistani police and CIA officers in January 2002 while he was living in Islamabad.

I was never arrested, I was kidnapped at gunpoint. Nobody ever questioned me until I was handed over into custody. It happened because the US offered bounties of thousands of pounds for each person. There was no justice system, absolutely none. They didn't even pretend there was. You were simply in custody and that's it.
I was held for three years - 11 months in Bagram and two years, one month in Guantanamo. Most of my time was in solitary confinement - it was monotonous and dreary, with nothing to look forward to. There was no window in my cell, and it was impossible to take more than three steps in any direction. They had recreation three times a day in a caged area that was about three times the size of my cell. By the end, they had increased each time to an hour.
We welcome news of the closure - it's seven years too late, but it's better late than never. But we're still concerned about the ghost prisons, where conditions are even worse than in Guantanamo. Obama has said that he's going to shut Guantanamo but he's also said that he's going to increase the numbers of troops in Afghanistan. So there are likely to be more people imprisoned there. I'm particularly concerned because I was held in Bagram myself for almost a year, and I saw some people killed there.

Clive Stafford Smith is legal director of the charity Reprieve and has spent more than 20 years representing prisoners on Death Row in the United States. More recently he has represented many of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling

Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
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“Never be afraid of stridency”: Richard Dawkins’ interview with Christopher Hitchens

Is America heading for theocracy? How worrying is the rise of the Tea Party? Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins discuss God and US politics.

The 2011 Christmas issue of the New Statesman was guest edited by Richard Dawkins. This is his interview with Christopher Hitchens from that issue. It was to be Hitchens' final interview; he died as it was published. A sensation at the time, it is now available to read online for the first time.

Richard Dawkins (left) and Christopher Hitchens in conversation

Richard Dawkins Do you have any memories of life at the New Statesman?

Christopher Hitchens Not that I want to impart. It seems like a different world and a different magazine and it happened to a different person. I’d love them to interview me one day about it, for an edition about the role of the Statesman, but I’d really rather you and I focus on the pulse of the issue, which is obviously our common cause.

RD I’ve been reading some of your recent collections of essays – I’m astounded by your sheer erudition. You seem to have read absolutely everything. I can’t think of anybody since Aldous Huxley who’s so well read.

CH It may strike some people as being broad but it’s possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn’t have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word “polymath” came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who’s interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely – to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it – and I think I’ve got good memory retention. I retain what’s interesting to me, but I don’t have a lot of strategic depth. A lot of reviewers have said, to the point of embarrassing me, that I’m in the class of Edmund Wilson or even George Orwell. It really does remind me that I’m not. But it’s something to at least have had the comparison made – it’s better than I expected when I started.

RD As an Orwell scholar, you must have a particular view of North Korea, Stalin, the Soviet Union, and you must get irritated – perhaps even more than I do – by the constant refrain we hear: “Stalin was an atheist.”

CH We don’t know for sure that he was. Hitler definitely wasn’t. There is a possibility that Himmler was. It’s very unlikely but it wouldn’t make any difference, either way. There’s no mandate in atheism for any particular kind of politics, anyway.

RD The people who did Hitler’s dirty work were almost all religious.

CH I’m afraid the SS’s relationship with the Catholic Church is something the Church still has to deal with and does not deny.

RD Can you talk a bit about that – the relationship of Nazism with the Catholic Church?

CH The way I put it is this: if you’re writing about the history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the word “fascist”, if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria and replace it with “extremeright Catholic party”. Almost all of those regimes were in place with the help of the Vatican and with understandings from the Holy See. It’s not denied. These understandings quite often persisted after the Second World War was over and extended to comparable regimes in Argentina and elsewhere.

RD But there were individual priests who did good things.

CH Not very many. You would know their names if there were more of them. When it comes to National Socialism, there’s no question there’s a mutation, a big one – the Nazis wanted their own form of worship. Just as they thought they were a separate race, they wanted their own religion. They dug out the Norse gods, all kinds of extraordinary myths and legends from the old sagas. They wanted to control the churches. They were willing to make a deal with them. The first deal Hitler made with the Catholic Church was the Konkordat. The Church agreed to dissolve its political party and he got control over German education, which was a pretty good deal. Celebrations of his birthday were actually by order from the pulpit. When Hitler survived an assassination attempt, prayers were said, and so forth. But there’s no doubt about it, [the Nazis] wanted control – and they were willing to clash with the churches to get it. There’s another example. You swore on Almighty God that you would never break your oath to the Führer. This is not even secular, let alone atheist.

RD There was also grace before meals, personally thanking Adolf Hitler.

CH I believe there was. Certainly, you can hear the oath being taken – there are recordings of it – but this, Richard, is a red herring. It’s not even secular. They’re changing the subject.

RD But it comes up over and over again.

CH You mentioned North Korea. It is, in every sense, a theocratic state. It’s almost supernatural, in that the births of the [ruling] Kim family are considered to be mysterious and accompanied by happenings. It’s a necrocracy or mausolocracy, but there’s no possible way you could say it’s a secular state, let alone an atheist one. Attempts to found new religions should attract our scorn just as much as the alliances with the old ones do. All they’re saying is that you can’t claim Hitler was distinctively or specifically Christian: “Maybe if he had gone on much longer, he would have de-Christianised a bit more.” This is all a complete fog of nonsense. It’s bad history and it’s bad propaganda.

RD And bad logic, because there’s no connection between atheism and doing horrible things, whereas there easily can be a connection in the case of religion, as we see with modern Islam.

CH To the extent that they are new religions – Stalin worship and Kim Il-sungism – we, like all atheists, regard them with horror.

RD You debated with Tony Blair. I’m not sure I watched that. I love listening to you [but] I can’t bear listening to . . . Well, I mustn’t say that. I think he did come over as rather nice on that evening.

CH He was charming, that evening. And during the day, as well.

RD What was your impression of him?

CH You can only have one aim per debate. I had two in debating with Tony Blair. The first one was to get him to admit that it was not done – the stuff we complain of – in only the name of religion. That’s a cop-out. The authority is in the text. Second, I wanted to get him to admit, if possible, that giving money to a charity or organising a charity does not vindicate a cause. I got him to the first one and I admired his honesty. He was asked by the interlocutor at about half-time: “Which of Christopher’s points strikes you as the best?” He said: “I have to admit, he’s made his case, he’s right. This stuff, there is authority for it in the canonical texts, in Islam, Judaism.” At that point, I’m ready to fold – I’ve done what I want for the evening. We did debate whether Catholic charities and so on were a good thing and I said: “They are but they don’t prove any point and some of them are only making up for damage done.” For example, the Church had better spend a lot of money doing repair work on its Aids policy in Africa, [to make up for preaching] that condoms don’t prevent disease or, in some cases, that they spread it. It is iniquitous. It has led to a lot of people dying, horribly. Also, I’ve never looked at some of the ground operations of these charities – apart from Mother Teresa – but they do involve a lot of proselytising, a lot of propaganda. They’re not just giving out free stuff. They’re doing work to recruit.

RD And Mother Teresa was one of the worst offenders?

CH She preached that poverty was a gift from God. And she believed that women should not be given control over the reproductive cycle. Mother Teresa spent her whole life making sure that the one cure for poverty we know is sound was not implemented. So Tony Blair knows this but he doesn’t have an answer. If I say, “Your Church preaches against the one cure for poverty,” he doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t affirm it either. But remember, I did start with a text and I asked him to comment on it first, but he never did. Cardinal Newman said he would rather the whole world and everyone in it be painfully destroyed and condemned for ever to eternal torture than one sinner go unrebuked for the stealing of a sixpence. It’s right there in the centre of the Apologia. The man whose canonisation Tony had been campaigning for. You put these discrepancies in front of him and he’s like all the others. He keeps two sets of books. And this is also, even in an honest person, shady.

RD It’s like two minds, really. One notices this with some scientists.

CH I think we all do it a bit.

RD Do we?

CH We’re all great self-persuaders.

RD But do we hold such extreme contradictions in our heads?

CH We like to think our colleagues would point them out, in our group, anyway. No one’s pointed out to me in reviewing my God book God Is Not Great that there’s a flat discrepancy between the affirmation he makes on page X and the affirmation he makes on page Y.

RD But they do accuse you of being a contrarian, which you’ve called yourself . . .

CH Well, no, I haven’t. I’ve disowned it. I was asked to address the idea of it and I began by saying it’s got grave shortcomings as an idea, but I am a bit saddled with it.

RD I’ve always been very suspicious of the leftright dimension in politics.

CH Yes; it’s broken down with me.

RD It’s astonishing how much traction the left-right continuum [has] . . . If you know what someone thinks about the death penalty or abortion, then you generally know what they think about everything else. But you clearly break that rule.

CH I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian – on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do. That has secular forms with gurus and dictators, of course, but it’s essentially the same. There have been some thinkers – Orwell is pre-eminent – who understood that, unfortunately, there is innate in humans a strong tendency to worship, to become abject. So we’re not just fighting the dictators. We’re criticising our fellow humans for trying to short-cut, to make their lives simpler, by surrendering and saying, “[If] you offer me bliss, of course I’m going to give up some of my mental freedom for that.” We say it’s a false bargain: you’ll get nothing. You’re a fool.

RD That part of you that was, or is, of the radical left is always against the totalitarian dictators.

CH Yes. I was a member of the Trotskyist group – for us, the socialist movement could only be revived if it was purged of Stalinism . . . It’s very much a point for our view that Stalinism was a theocracy.

RD One of my main beefs with religion is the way they label children as a “Catholic child” or a “Muslim child”. I’ve become a bit of a bore about it.

CH You must never be afraid of that charge, any more than stridency.

RD I will remember that.

CH If I was strident, it doesn’t matter – I was a jobbing hack, I bang my drum. You have a discipline in which you are very distinguished. You’ve educated a lot of people; nobody denies that, not even your worst enemies. You see your discipline being attacked and defamed and attempts made to drive it out.

Stridency is the least you should muster . . . It’s the shame of your colleagues that they don’t form ranks and say, “Listen, we’re going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements.” If you go on about something, the worst thing the English will say about you, as we both know – as we can say of them, by the way – is that they’re boring.

RD Indeed. Only this morning, I was sent a copy of [advice from] a British government website, called something like “The Responsibilities of Parents”. One of these responsibilities was “determine the child’s religion”. Literally, determine. It means establish, cause . . . I couldn’t ask for a clearer illustration, because, sometimes, when I make my complaint about this, I’m told nobody actually does label children Catholic children or Muslim children.

CH Well, the government does. It’s borrowed, as far as I can see, in part from British imperial policy, in turn borrowed from Ottoman and previous empires – you classify your new subjects according to their faith. You can be an Ottoman citizen but you’re a Jewish one or an Armenian Christian one. And some of these faiths tell their children that the children of other faiths are going to hell. I think we can’t ban that, nor can we call it “hate speech”, which I’m dubious about anyway, but there should be a wrinkle of disapproval.

RD I would call it mental child abuse.

CH I can’t find a way, as a libertarian, of saying that people can’t raise their children, as they say, according to their rights. But the child has rights and society does, too. We don’t allow female – and I don’t think we should countenance male – genital mutilation.

Now, it would be very hard to say that you can’t tell your child that they are lucky and they have joined the one true faith. I don’t see how you stop it. I only think the rest of society should look at it with a bit of disapproval, which it doesn’t. If you’re a Mormon and you run for office and say, “Do you believe in the golden plates that were dug up by Joseph Smith?” – which [Mitt] Romney hasn’t been asked yet – sorry, you’re going to get mocked. You’re going to get laughed at.

RD There is a tendency among liberals to feel that religion should be off the table.

CH Or even that there’s anti-religious racism, which I think is a terrible limitation.

RD Romney has questions to answer.

CH Certainly, he does. The question of Mormon racism did come up, to be fair, and the Church did very belatedly make amends for saying what, in effect, it had been saying: that black people’s souls weren’t human, quite. They timed it suspiciously for the passage of legislation. Well, OK, then they grant the right of society to amend [the legislation]. To that extent, they’re opportunists.

RD But what about the daftness of Mormonism? The fact that Joseph Smith was clearly a charlatan –

CH I know, it’s extraordinary.

RD I think there is a convention in America that you don’t tackle somebody about their religion.

CH Yes, and in a way it’s attributed to pluralism. And so, to that extent, one wants to respect it, but I think it can be exploited. By many people, including splinter-group Mormons who still do things like plural marriage and, very repulsively, compulsory dowries – they basically give away their daughters, often to blood relatives. And also kinship marriages that are too close. This actually won’t quite do. When it is important, they tend to take refuge in: “You’re attacking my fundamental right.” I don’t think they really should be allowed that.

RD Do you think America is in danger of becoming a theocracy?

CH No, I don’t. The people who we mean when we talk about that – maybe the extreme Protestant evangelicals, who do want a God-run America and believe it was founded on essentially fundamentalist Protestant principles – I think they may be the most overrated threat in the country.

RD Oh, good.

CH They’ve been defeated everywhere. Why is this? In the 1920s, they had a string of victories. They banned the sale, manufacture and distribution and consumption of alcohol. They made it the constitution. They more or less managed to ban immigration from countries that had non-Protestant, non-white majorities. From these victories, they have never recovered. They’ll never recover from [the failure of] Prohibition. It was their biggest defeat. They’ll never recover from the Scopes trial. Every time they’ve tried [to introduce the teaching of creationism], the local school board or the parents or the courts have thrown it out and it’s usually because of the work of people like you, who have shown that it’s nonsense. They try to make a free speech question out of it but they will fail with that, also. People don’t want to come from the town or the state or the county that gets laughed at.

RD Yes.

CH In all my tours around the South, it’s amazing how many people – Christians as well – want to disprove the idea that they’re all in thrall to people like [the fundamentalist preacher Jerry] Falwell. They don’t want to be a laughing stock.

RD Yes.

CH And if they passed an ordinance saying there will be prayer in school every morning from now on, one of two things would happen: it would be overthrown in no time by all the courts, with barrels of laughter heaped over it, or people would say: “Very well, we’re starting with Hindu prayer on Monday.” They would regret it so bitterly that there are days when I wish they would have their own way for a short time.

RD Oh, that’s very cheering.

CH I’m a bit more worried about the extreme, reactionary nature of the papacy now. But that again doesn’t seem to command very big allegiance among the American congregation. They are disobedient on contraception, flagrantly; on divorce; on gay marriage, to an extraordinary degree that I wouldn’t have predicted; and they’re only holding firm on abortion, which, in my opinion, is actually a very strong moral question and shouldn’t be decided lightly. I feel very squeamish about it. I believe that the unborn child is a real concept, in other words. We needn’t go there, but I’m not a complete abortion-on-demand fanatic. I think it requires a bit of reflection. But anyway, even on that, the Catholic Communion is very agonised. And also, [when] you go and debate with them, very few of them could tell you very much about what the catechism really is. It’s increasingly cultural Catholicism.

RD That is true, of course.

CH So, really, the only threat from religious force in America is the same as it is, I’m afraid, in many other countries – from outside. And it’s jihadism, some of it home-grown, but some of that is so weak and so self-discrediting.

RD It’s more of a problem in Britain.

CH And many other European countries, where its alleged root causes are being allowed slightly too friendly an interrogation, I think. Make that much too friendly.

RD Some of our friends are so worried about Islam that they’re prepared to lend support to Christianity as a kind of bulwark against it.

CH I know many Muslims who, in leaving the faith, have opted to go . . . to Christianity or via it to non-belief. Some of them say it’s the personality of Jesus of Nazareth. The mild and meek one, as compared to the rather farouche, physical, martial, rather greedy . . .

RD Warlord.

CH . . . Muhammad. I can see that that might have an effect.

RD Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?

CH No, in a funny way, I don’t worry that we’ll win. All that we can do is make absolutely sure that people know there’s a much more wonderful and interesting and beautiful alternative. No, I don’t think that Europe would fill up with Muslims as it emptied of Christians. Christianity has defeated itself in that it has become a cultural thing. There really aren’t believing Christians in the way there were generations ago.

RD Certainly in Europe that’s true – but in America?

CH There are revivals, of course, and among Jews as well. But I think there’s a very longrunning tendency in the developed world and in large areas elsewhere for people to see the virtue of secularism, the separation of church and state, because they’ve tried the alternatives . . . Every time something like a jihad or a sharia movement has taken over any country – admittedly they’ve only been able to do it in very primitive cases – it’s a smouldering wreck with no productivity.

RD Total failure. If you look at religiosity across countries of the world and, indeed, across the states of the US, you find that religiosity tends to correlate with poverty and with various other indices of social deprivation.

CH Yes. That’s also what it feeds on. But I don’t want to condescend about that. I know a lot of very educated, very prosperous, very thoughtful people who believe.

RD Do you think [Thomas] Jefferson and [James] Madison were deists, as is often said?

CH I think they fluctuated, one by one. Jefferson is the one I’m more happy to pronounce on. The furthest he would go in public was to incline to a theistic enlightened view but, in his private correspondence, he goes much further. He says he wishes we could return to the wisdom of more than 2,000 years ago. That’s in his discussion of his own Jefferson Bible, where he cuts out everything supernatural relating to Jesus. But also, very importantly, he says to his nephew Peter Carr in a private letter [on the subject of belief]: “Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and the love of others which it will procure you.” Now, that can only be written by someone who’s had that experience.

RD It’s very good, isn’t it?

CH In my judgement, it’s an internal reading, but I think it’s a close one. There was certainly no priest at his bedside. But he did violate a rule of C S Lewis’s and here I’m on Lewis’s side. Lewis says it is a cop-out to say Jesus was a great moralist. He said it’s the one thing we must not say; it is a wicked thing to say. If he wasn’t the Son of God, he was a very evil impostor and his teachings were vain and fraudulent. You may not take the easy route here and say: “He may not have been the Son of God and he may not have been the Redeemer, but he was a wonderful moralist.” Lewis is more honest than Jefferson in this point. I admire Lewis for saying that. Rick Perry said it the other day.

RD Jesus could just have been mistaken.

CH He could. It’s not unknown for people to have the illusion that they’re God or the Son. It’s a common delusion but, again, I don’t think we need to condescend. Rick Perry once said: “Not only do I believe that Jesus is my personal saviour but I believe that those who don’t are going to eternal punishment.” He was challenged at least on the last bit and he said, “I don’t have the right to alter the doctrine. I can’t say it’s fine for me and not for others.”

RD So we ought to be on the side of these fundamentalists?

CH Not “on the side”, but I think we should say that there’s something about their honesty that we wish we could find.

RD Which we don’t get in bishops . . .

CH Our soft-centred bishops at Oxford and other people, yes.

RD I’m often asked why it is that this republic [of America], founded in secularism, is so much more religious than those western European countries that have an official state religion, like Scandinavia and Britain.

CH [Alexis] de Tocqueville has it exactly right. If you want a church in America, you have to build it by the sweat of your own brow and many have. That’s why they’re attached to them.

RD Yes.

CH [Look at] the Greek Orthodox community in Brooklyn. What’s the first thing it will do? It will build itself a little shrine. The Jews – not all of them – remarkably abandoned their religion very soon after arriving from the shtetl.

RD Are you saying that most Jews have abandoned their religion?

CH Increasingly in America. When you came to escape religious persecution and you didn’t want to replicate it, that’s a strong memory. The Jews very quickly secularised when they came. American Jews must be the most secular force on the planet now, as a collective. If they are a collective –which they’re not, really.

RD While not being religious, they often still observe the Sabbath and that kind of thing.

CH There’s got to be something cultural. I go to Passover every year. Sometimes, even I have a seder, because I want my child to know that she does come very distantly from another tradition. It would explain if she met her greatgrandfather why he spoke Yiddish. It’s cultural, but the Passover seder is also the Socratic forum. It’s dialectical. It’s accompanied by wine. It’s got the bones of quite a good discussion in it. And then there is manifest destiny. People feel America is just so lucky. It’s between two oceans, filled with minerals, wealth, beauty. It does seem providential to many people.

RD Promised land, city on a hill.

CH All that and the desire for another Eden. Some secular utopians came here with the same idea. Thomas Paine and others all thought of America as a great new start for the species.

RD But that was all secular.

CH A lot of it was, but you can’t get away from the liturgy: it’s too powerful. You will end up saying things like “promised land” and it can be mobilised for sinister purposes. But in a lot of cases, it’s a mild belief. It’s just: “We should share our good luck.”

RD I’ve heard another theory that, America being a country of immigrants, people coming from Europe, where they left their extended family and left their support system, were alone and they needed something.

CH Surely that was contained in what I just . . .

RD Maybe it was.

CH The reason why most of my friends are non-believers is not particularly that they were engaged in the arguments you and I have been having, but they were made indifferent by compulsory religion at school.

RD They got bored by it.

CH They’d had enough of it. They took from it occasionally whatever they needed – if you needed to get married, you knew where to go. Some of them, of course, are religious and some of them like the music but, generally speaking, the British people are benignly indifferent to religion.

RD And the fact that there is an established church increases that effect. Churches should not be tax-free the way that they are. Not automatically, anyway.

CH No, certainly not. If the Church has demanded that equal time be given to creationist or pseudo-creationist speculations . . . any Church that teaches that in its school and is in receipt of federal money from the faith-based initiative must, by law, also teach Darwinism and alternative teachings, in order that the debate is being taught. I don’t think they want this.

RD No.

CH Tell them if they want equal time, we’ll jolly well have it. That’s why they’ve always been against comparative religion.

RD Comparative religion would be one of the best weapons, I suspect.

CH It’s got so insipid in parts of America now that a lot of children are brought up – as their parents aren’t doing it and leave it to the schools and the schools are afraid of it – with no knowledge of any religion of any kind. I would like children to know what religion is about because [otherwise] some guru or cult or revivalists will sweep them up.

RD They’re vulnerable. I also would like them to know the Bible for literary reasons.

CH Precisely. We both, I was pleased to see, have written pieces about the King James Bible. The AV [Authorised Version], as it was called in my boyhood. A huge amount of English literature would be opaque if people didn’t know it.

RD Absolutely, yes. Have you read some of the modern translations? “Futile, said the preacher. Utterly futile.”

CH He doesn’t!

RD He does, honestly. “Futile, futile said the priest. It’s all futile.”

CH That’s Lamentations.

RD No, it’s Ecclesiastes. “Vanity, vanity.”

CH “Vanity, vanity.” Good God. That’s the least religious book in the Bible. That’s the one that Orwell wanted at his funeral.

RD I bet he did. I sometimes think the poetry comes from the intriguing obscurity of mistranslation. “When the sound of the grinding is low, the grasshopper is heard in the land . . . The grasshopper shall be a burden.” What the hell?

CH The Book of Job is the other great non-religious one, I always feel. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Try to do without that. No, I’m glad we’re on the same page there. People tell me that the recitation of the Quran can have the same effect if you understand the original language. I wish I did. Some of the Catholic liturgy is attractive.

RD I don’t know enough Latin to judge that.

CH Sometimes one has just enough to be irritated.

RD Yes [laughs]. Can you say anything about Christmas?

CH Yes. There was going to be a winter solstice holiday for sure. The dominant religion was going to take it over and that would have happened without Dickens and without others.

RD The Christmas tree comes from Prince Albert; the shepherds and the wise men are all made up.

CH Cyrenius wasn’t governor of Syria, all of that. Increasingly, it’s secularised itself. This “Happy Holidays” – I don’t particularly like that, either.

RD Horrible, isn’t it? “Happy holiday season.”

CH I prefer our stuff about the cosmos.

***

The day after this interview, I was honoured to present an award to Christopher Hitchens in the presence of a large audience in Texas that gave him a standing ovation, first as he entered the hall and again at the end of his deeply moving speech. My own presentation speech ended with a tribute, in which I said that every day he demonstrates the falsehood of the lie that there are no atheists in foxholes: “Hitch is in a foxhole, and he is dealing with it with a courage, an honesty and a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to muster.”