Copts & Brothers

A surprising dialogue between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's Coptic Christians suggests a new wa

Two years ago, on 14 October 2005, a major religious riot between Christians and Muslims broke out in the backstreets of Alexandria. An angry mob spilled out of a mosque during Ramadan and began attacking the large Coptic church of Mar Girgis - St George - on the other side of the road.

Tension between the two communities in Egypt had been high ever since the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When George W Bush used the word "crusade", it implicated the Copts, in the eyes of some Muslims, in a wider Christian assault on the Muslim world. The immediate cause of the violence, however, was a play that had been mounted in the church about resisting conversion to Islam - part of a programme of summer activities for the Coptic youth organised by the local parish priest. When a video of the play, made by the proud father of one of the actors, was found on the hard drive of a laptop that he had inadvertently sold to a Muslim hardliner, trouble quickly escalated.

In the days that followed the publication of the first articles about the play in the Islamist press, and the distribution of DVDs of the performance around the mosques of Alexandria, angry Muslims went on the rampage, believing that the play criticised Islamic beliefs and denigrated the Prophet. Stones and Molotov cocktails were thrown at Coptic properties, windows were broken, six churches were trashed, Coptic jewellery shops were looted, and two men were killed: one a Christian, one a Muslim. Many more were injured.

At one point, a party of 150 Coptic girls who come to Mar Girgis for religious instruction was besieged within the church by a large mob, and a potentially horrific situation was avoided only after the police belatedly answered a distress call from the parish priest, Abouna Augustinos. Tear gas and water cannon had to be used before the mob finally dispersed. Four more Copts were knifed as they came out of church services the following Sunday. "What happened that week has left a permanent scar," I was told by Dr Kamal Siddiq, a Coptic dermatologist who, like many, was forced into hiding during the rioting. "We used to have peaceable relations with our neighbours. But in this atmosphere any small incident can instantly escalate."

Now, however, an initiative has been launched that brings Coptic Christians together with young members of al-Ikhwan, or the Muslim Brotherhood, to ensure that such misunderstandings are not repeated. One of the events that has been planned is a play in which young Copts and Muslim Brothers perform side by side. The man behind the play, Youssef Sidhom, is the editor of Watani, Egypt's leading Coptic news paper. He believes that dialogue between the two faiths is a pressing necessity. "After the success of the Muslim Brothers in the recent elections we can no longer ignore them," he says. "We need to enter into dialogue, to clarify their policies towards us, and end mutual mistrust."

The dilemma faced by the Copts reflects a larger question now facing western policymakers. Throughout the Muslim world, political Islam is on the march. In the past three or four years, almost everywhere that Muslims have had the right to vote - in Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey, Egypt and Algeria - they have voted en masse for the religious parties in a way they have never done before. The only two exceptions to this rule are Morocco and Jordan, the latter in an election marked by accusations of mass vote-rigging.

In countries where the government has been most closely linked to US policies, the rise of political Islam has been most marked: in Pakistan the religious parties, which used to gain only 3 per cent of the vote, have been polling around 20 per cent. Equally, in the 2006 election in Palestine, Hamas roundly defeated the blatantly corrupt and US- supported Fatah.

It has long been an article of faith for the neocons that bringing democracy to the Middle East would do away with the Islamists in the same way that the arrival of democracy saw off the communists in eastern Europe. In reality, while US foreign policy since 9/11 has indeed succeeded in turning Muslim opinion against the decadent monarchies and corrupt nationalist parties that have ruled the region for the past 50 years, Muslims, rather than turning to liberal secular parties, have lined up behind the parties that have stood up against US intervention. The religious parties, in other words, have come to power for reasons largely disconnected from religion.

Nowhere has the march of the Islamists been more steady than in Egypt: at the last general election in 2005, members of the nominally banned Muslim Brotherhood, standing as independents, saw their representation rise from 17 seats to 88 in the 454-seat People's Assembly, despite reports of systematic vote-rigging by President Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). At the same time, the face of the country has visibly changed: almost all Muslim women now wear the hijab and reject make-up, at least partly as a statement of political defiance against the west and western-backed regimes. This is a major change: as recently as the early 1990s the great majority of Egyptian women did not cover their hair.

The US response to gains made by the Islamists has been to retreat from its previous push for democracy when the "wrong" parties win - something that was most apparent in the notably undemocratic US response to the rise of Hamas in Palestine. This instinct was also at work in the US- and UK-brokered "rendition" of the Pakistani Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia, in order to leave the electoral field clear for Benazir Bhutto - in effect imposing a single candidate on the electorate, until Musharraf's emergency changed all political calculations and Sharif was allowed to return. The US has also retreated from backing democracy in Egypt. Many of the Brotherhood's leading activists and business backers, as well as Mubarak's principal opponent in the 2005 presidential election, are now in prison. In September, four Egyptian newspaper editors were given prison sentences for libelling Mubarak and the NDP.

But the Egyptian Copts - the ancient Christian community who make up roughly 15 per cent of Egypt's population - don't have the luxury of looking the other way. They realise that with the decline in popularity of the NDP, they will have to learn, for better or worse, to live with the Islamists.

* * *

The Copts have long suffered petty discrimination. But the revival of the Islamists has made their position more uneasy and their prospects more uncertain than they have been for centuries. Like other Christian sects in the Middle East, the Copts now find themselves caught between their co-religionists in Europe and the US, and their strong cultural links with their compatriots in the east. As at the time of the Crusades, it is the eastern Christians who are getting it in the neck for what the people perceive as the anti-Islamic policies of the west.

Throughout the 1990s, Copts, especially in Upper Egypt, were targeted by the Islamist guerrillas of the Gama'a al-Islamiyya. In April 1992, 14 Copts were shot in Asyut Province for refusing to pay protection money. There followed a series of crude bombs outside Coptic churches in Alexandria and Cairo. In March 1994, militants attacked the ancient Coptic monastery of Deir al-Muharraq near Asyut; two monks and two laypeople were shot dead at the monastery's front gate. "In the last few years many churches were burned, many of our priests and laymen were killed," I was told by one Coptic monk. "Every day, there are death threats. The police arrest no one, though they know very well who does this."

Since then, however, the Gama'a has renounced violence, and the Islamists have concentrated on reaching power through the ballot box. At the same time, the Copts' political influence has slowly diminished: there is still one Coptic provincial governor and there are two Coptic ministers, one of them a popular technocrat nephew of the former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali. But, in contrast to the situation under Nasser and Sadat, there are no Coptic senior policemen, judges, university vice-chancellors, or generals.

Yet if the Copts face a certain amount of institutional discrimination, Mubarak himself has been largely sympathetic to the community, making Christmas a national holiday and freeing up the rules on building new churches. The Copts know that things could get much worse for them if Mubarak falls and the Brothers come to power.

Samir and Nabil Morcos are among those Copts who have recently begun a series of public discussions with the younger generation of the Brothers. Many of these, they say, are moderate in their outlook, and wish to turn al-Ikhwan into a Muslim equivalent of a European Christian Democratic party, similar to the AKP in Turkey. They believe there is a major divide between the younger Brothers and the old guard, who share the illiberal and intolerant outlook of the Brotherhood's founder, Hassan al-Banna. They also point out the role played by the Brothers in the Alexandria riots, where they acted quickly to calm the rioters and, in some cases, even formed human chains to stop the rioters entering Coptic districts.

After Coptic intellectuals recently appeared on al-Jazeera to discuss citizenship and the rights of religious minorities under an Ikhwan government, the Brothers promised to produce a policy document on the subject. "The Copts are much more vocal in their claim for rights these days," says Samir Morcos, who took part in the debate. "We have been expressing our fears to the political bureau of al-Ikhwan, and discussing new interpretations of the various Islamic texts about minorities. Dialogue is always a positive thing. We have discovered a whole new generation who are doing their best to find a new fusion of democracy, modernity and Islam. A lot of them are secular Muslims - former leftists who have moved intellectually towards a rediscovery of Islamic tradition. In many ways, they are an Islamic version of the neocons."

"The Brothers are not a solid block," agrees Nabil. "The recent growth of the Brotherhood has largely come out of the failure of Nasserism. Many of the younger Brothers are there not for explicitly religious reasons, but because they are struggling to find new answers to the chronic problems the Arab world is facing. We want to be part of that discussion. As Egyptians, it is important that we all struggle against poverty, lack of democracy and social justice."

At the offices of Watani, Youssef Sidhom is also involved in opening up dialogue. In the past few years there has been a growing polarisation in Egyptian society, he says with concern. A generation ago, most Egyptians chose names for their children which could be either Christian or Muslim. Now children's names - such as Mohammed or Girgis (George) - immediately define their sectarian affiliation. Likewise, the near-universal adoption of the hijab by Muslim women has left Coptic women dangerously exposed and sometimes subject to threats and abuse. In the face of growing discrimination, the Copts have tended to form their own schools and social clubs, keeping their distance from the Muslim majority.

This is something the Coptic clergy - every bit as radically conservative as their Muslim counterparts - have often encouraged, but Sidhom believes it is an extremely dangerous development. "In schools and universities, in sports and in cultural activities, Muslims and Christians no longer mix together," he says, "and these attitudes are encouraged by the religious leaders of both the churches and mosques. Even if there are friendships across the divide, there is little trust. If we continue to allow the Coptic youth to be separated from their fellow citizens, there will be a growth of mistrust on either side. But with dialogue, both sides are surprised to find how much they have in common."

Sidhom has given one of the more progressive Muslim Brother MPs a column in his paper, allowing the Copts to ask him questions and air their anxieties. "There was horror when the column first appeared. But it has allowed us to ask about the Brotherhood's attitude not only to the Copts, but to such issues as women, banking and terrorism," says Sidhom. "Dialogue is not the same as surrender - we differ on many issues and want a secular state not an Islamic one. But what we really need is radical constitutional reform. As long as the Brothers are the only opposition to Mubarak and the NDP, this situation is going to get worse."

* * *

What is happening in Cairo may be a useful model of how to engage with the ever more powerful democratic religious parties across the Islamic world. Right-wing commentators such as Melanie Phillips, Michael Gove and Martin Amis tend to see the march of political Islam as the triumph of an anti- liberal "Islamofascism" that aims to conquer the west through jihad and establish a universal caliphate. Although some Islamic ideologues do speak in these terms, to see this as the principal or even a major thrust in political Islam is ignorant and simplistic.

The truth is more complex. First, by concentrating on the violent fringe of jihadis, we in the west have in many ways missed the main story - the rise of a vast and largely democratic force. Second, while determination to resist western hegemony in the Muslim world is an important driving force in political Islam, the movement has local causes, too. Some - such as the promotion of Wahhabi Islam by Saudi madrasas - are religious, but most are not. In Egypt, as in many countries, the parties of political Islam contain a broad spectrum of anti-government opinion, and it is often entirely secular factors that have brought them to power. In Palestine, the open corruption and greed of the PLO led many to support Hamas. In Lebanon, the rise of Hezbollah has been the result of Hasan Nasrallah's status as the man who gave the Israelis a bloody nose, who compensates the people for war damage and provides social services, just as Hamas does in Gaza.

The same is true of the rise of political Islam in Pakistan, where the Islamist parties have benefited from the unpopularity of the feudal and military elites that have held power since 1947. When I interviewed Abdul Rashid Ghazi in the Red Mosque shortly before his death in the storming of the complex in early July, he returned again and again to issues of social justice. "We want our rulers to be honest people," he repeated. "But now the rulers are living a life of luxury, while thousands of innocent children have empty stomachs and can't even get basic necessities."

Youssef Boutros-Ghali, Egypt's Coptic minister of finance, also believes the rise of political Islam is largely due to secular factors: "The success of the Brothers does not come expressly from religious sources. Their popularity is primarily a result from our [the NDP's] unpopularity - they are quite simply the main focus of opposition to us. Our society is in transit, and transitions are not painless. But give me five years of high growth and prosperity, and a better distribution of income, and I guarantee you that this problem would roll back completely."

The only exceptions to the litany of Islamist electoral successes are significant, and confirm Boutros-Ghali's instincts: in the relatively stable, prosperous and peaceful kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco the Islamist tide has been checked at the ballot box. In the case of Morocco, the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party was expected to sweep the polls in November, but ended up coming second behind the secular-nationalist, pro-monarchist Istiqlal (Independence) Party.

Either way, it is only by opening dialogue with the different Islamist parties across the Muslim world that we are likely to find those with which we can work. Like the Copts, we may well discover in talking to them that less separates us than we at first imagined.

William Dalrymple is the author of "From the Holy Mountain: a Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium" (Harper Perennial, £9.99). His latest book, "The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857" (Bloomsbury, £8.99), recently won the Duff Cooper Prize. www.williamdalrymple.com

Egypt’s Christian history

1st century AD Christianity arrives from Palestine

200 Egypt is largely Christian; the Church of Alexandria is second in importance only to Rome

641 Arabs invade; over the next 200 years most Egyptians convert to Islam

13th century Following the Crusades, Copts are persecuted by Egypt's Mamluk rulers; forced conversions take place

1952 to present After Gamal Abdel Nasser comes to power in a nationalist coup, Copts are increasingly marginalised. Discrimination worsens with the rise of Islamism in the 1990s

Research by Rachel Aspden

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

Stewart Butterfield/Wikimedia
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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.”