Last night, after July 14th the terrorist attack at Nice, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said — along with other minor remarks, such as that any Muslim in America believing in sharia should be deported — that “Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization.” Is it? That’s a very important question to answer, for, whatever it is, it must be the basis of our policies toward Islam.
It would be cliché to say that we need a serious public debate on this question, but we do need a serious public debate on this question. But, if we hold to past practices, we will not get one. We will get some publications arguing one side, and we’ll get other publications arguing the other side, and most people will read the publications that they agree with.
Or, in the current presidential campaign, we will have the presidential debates where the moderator(s) may or may not ask questions on the subject. The Republican nominee, Donald Trump, could eliminate such uncertainty by challenging the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton to a debate to be conducted prior to the televised debates, going specifically to the question – Is Islam compatible with our way of life or not? More specifically, “Do Islamic Scriptures include a political dimension that incompatible with freedom of speech and freedom of religion?” Or, indeed, the roles could be reversed, and Clinton could challenge him. Either way, Clinton would presumably take the position that Islam is compatible, and Trump, that it is not.
Let us be frank, however. A discussion between Trump and Clinton on the nature of Islam is not likely to be very illuminating. This is intended as no disrespect to be either of them, but simply to point out that there are far more qualified individuals – prominent authors, in particular – to engage in such an exchange. Trump and Clinton should each select an advocate or advocates to speak on his or her behalf.
Except that it should not be spoken, but rather written. There should, in other words, be not an oral debate, but a written debate. Whenever anything is very important, when it’s very important to get it right, we put it in writing. And it is certainly important to get our understanding of this issue right. (Moreover, this will allow the candidates to review the statements and arguments their advocates make – and to approve or reject them – prior to their being published – or, more efficiently, posted.
Other than that, it would follow all the conventional forms of a traditional oral debate. There were the opening statements, rebuttals, and counter rebuttals, all within a predetermined word-count limit.
There could, as an optional feature, after the written debate is finished, be a session of oral arguments between the advocates, and these could also be televised or videotaped. In such case, we could then be able to say that the entire process would be very much like a courtroom trial – one in which the advocates present legal briefs to the judge, which are then followed by oral arguments. (Under our current political practice, we have the oral arguments, but no legal briefs preceding them.)
Of course, a big objection to this would be that there would be little public interest in such an exchange. Perhaps. But, as trial lawyers know, it is the cross-examination phase of a trial that most engages the jurors (and probably judge’s) interest. Such debates would be the closest to that. And this is a subject of great concern — one that certainly justifies such a disciplined and authoritative exchange in connection with the political campaign.
Even if we assume very little public interest, however, such an exchange could still be useful in laying a foundation for the televised oral presidential debates to follow. Prior to them, they could serve as a resource to the candidates, and to political commentators. And during the debates, to the the moderators.In such ways, such a prior, “legal brief” debate should lead to a more disciplined and authoritative discussion. And on this, and on many other issues, we need the very best public discussion we can get.