Row over proposed statue to ‘pro-war Islamophobe’

Labour councillors are blocking plans to honour campaigning journalist Christopher Hitchens with a statue, with one of them branding the late writer as a “pro-war Islamophobe”.

A trail of emails leaked to the New Journal show a sharp exchange between the British Humanist Association (BHA), which wants the statue to be erected in Red Lion Square, Holborn, and politicians representing the ward.

Hitchens, often known simply as “Hitch”, courted controversy with editorials supporting the Iraq War. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was among those who gave a warm tribute after the writer’s death from cancer in December last year. The writer also split opinion with his public criticism of religion, his book God Is Not Great selling hundreds of thousands of copies around the world. His brother Peter Hitchens is a commentator and columnist for The Mail on Sunday.

In one message to the BHA, Councillor Awale Olad suggested he would rather walk away from council business than support a statue to Hitchens in the square. “I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead but I would resign before I’d ever support the bust of a pro-war Islamophobe,” he wrote.

The New Journal has learned that plans for a Hitchens memorial have been in the pipeline for several months and its sponsors have already considered the garden squares in Bloomsbury. That area is already under scrutiny for the number of statues and memorials that have been installed and there is a growing feeling that a line should be drawn after a bust for Noor Inayat Khan – a spy working for the Allies in occupied France during World War Il – was given planning permission for Gordon Square on Thursday night.

The BHA favoured Red Lion Square because it was one of Hitch’s favourite spots in London and next to Conway Hall, famously the scene of many radical debates. It is currently home to a statue of philosopher Bertrand Russell and politician Fenner Brockway, and has a memorial tribute to a victim of the Lockerbie bombing.

The emails seen by the New Journal show Councillor Julian Fulbrook, who also represents Holborn, rejecting the idea on the grounds he thought the suggested link was weak. He wrote: “I am not really sure it will be of much profit to debate Hitch’s political or theological perspectives. Difficult to know where to start or where to end … My main problem is that Hitch left for the United States in 1981 so any link with Red Lion Square would have to be fairly tenuous.”

But he added, perhaps mischievously: “I also rather doubt that, in the long and possibly cruel march of history, any sort of case could be made out for Christopher Hitchens, even sporting his Third Class Honours degree from Oxford, as in your words, ‘one of the world’s greatest minds’ .”

Steve Ollington, digital strategist for the BHA, wrote back disagreeing with both councillors and suggesting they might not have digested enough of the writer’s work.

“I would say that academic record is not all that makes a great mind … there have been many who have no formal qualifications at all,” he said. “It does seem that those who, like or dislike him, don’t agree on the great mind aspect have usually not even scratched the surface of his works, only having read or watched a small fraction of him.” Mr Ollington added:

“Hitch wasn’t ‘pro-war’. Supporting a war doesn’t make someone pro-war. Many people supported WW2 but that doesn’t make them pro-war. Hitch went out there on numerous occasions and witnessed the suffering and oppression of people by Saddam Hussein first-hand. He believed, perhaps with a nihilistic view, that less suffering would result in the long run.”

Mr Ollington warned how Cllr Olad was following a line that would lead him to accepting “your peers who supported the war in Iraq are also pro-war”.

He added: “On the Islamophobe issue, Hitch was against all religions as an anti-theist. Not against the people of religion but the philosophies and the acts sometimes carried out in the names of these religions. He criticised what he saw as wrong within them. If you or I were to criticise the Conservative Party then we could, in the same sense, be labelled Tory-phobes … though that would not hold such a stigma as it’s a political party not a religion.”

Approached by the New Journal about the email exchange, Cllr Olad said last night: “Hitchens was an incredibly divisive figure, very anti-religion and in particular, incredibly offensive about Islam, often referring to Muslims as ‘primitive’ and ‘aggressive’. I respect the views of atheists and others but having a bust of Hitchens in Red Lion Square is counter-productive to social cohesion.”

Camden New Journal, 25 October 2012