The Spectator Debate – Is Secularism is a greater threat to Christianity than Islam?


by Esmerelda Weatherwax (July 2011)

Last year on Armistice Day, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the Muslims against Crusades burnt the poppies at Kensington Gore outside the Royal Geographical Society building. They were watched by Ernest Shackleton who stood impassively on his niche above.

Last night, Wednesday 29thJune 2011, I went to a more civilised event inside the building behind the statue of the Arctic explorer, and his companion round the corner, Dr Livingstone.

It was one of the debates organised regularly by the Spectator. Even non UK readers will have heard of this British magazine on current affairs.

The motion was Secularism is a greater threat to Christianity than Islam. This was not taken down verbatim in shorthand; it is from my longhand notes as full as I could make them, but is not supposed to be a complete transcript.

To speak in favour of the motion were Professor Tariq Ramadan, about whom much has been written here, most of it by Hugh, Father Timothy Radcliff OP a Dominican friar and Catholic priest who is, among other posts, a former chaplain to Imperial College which is adjacent, and Damian Thompson. He used to write the Holy Smoke blog for the Telegraph when his posts on Islam, frequently critical, used to attract lively debate. He is now the Blogs Editor for that paper and his current posts concentrate more on the flaws of the Catholic Church, and the lack of any good whatsoever (in his opinion) in the Church of England.

Opposing the motion were Nick Cohen who writes for the left wing Observer (aka the Sunday Grauniad) and is an advisor for the Secular Society and two men well known and admired at this site, The Very Rev’d Patrick Sookhdeo of the Barnabas Fund and Douglas Murray founder of the Centre for Social Cohesion.

The Chairman was Rod Liddle who is associate editor of the Spectator and a columnist for the Sunday Times.

The auditorium was full but not overcrowded. Some very ladylike young women dressed in elegant black took a preliminary verbal vote of our opinion before we had heard the arguments. Most of the panel took their places and Rod Liddle began his opening remarks and to introduce them. Tariq Ramadan was fashionably late.

Rod Liddle thanked us all for coming tonight and missing the latest episode of The Apprentice to do so. He said “Thanks are due to our sponsors, Brewin Dolphin; I don’t know what they do but if you see one, buy it”

He described Damian Thompson as a “very good writer even if he is further to the right than a fish knife” and Douglas Murray as “even outflanking Damian Thompson on the right”.

“And here is Tariq Ramadan” he said, as Ramadan slid into his chair in the nick of time.

The format of the debate was that each speaker would speak for 9 minutes. There would be questions from the floor. One minute each to sum up and then the vote would be announced.

Father Timothy Radcliff began.

He said that the term secularism can be used in a weak sense and a strong sense. In the weak sense the trend is for the exclusion of faith in the public sphere. In the strong of strict sense secularism maintains that the only truth is science, that which can be empirically observed and based on checkable facts

“This I maintain is a threat, not just to Christianity but to all civilisation”. He said that science can answer some questions but not the reason for our human existence, matters such as love and poetry. He said that Christianity has nothing against the secular. Men such as Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great insisted on testing hypotheses. Albert the Great had been told that ostriches ate iron; thereafter he carried a piece of iron in the hope that one day he would meet an ostrich on which to test the assertion.

“Truth is the motto of my order and truth is multi-layered. . . Faith and reason are never incompatible”.  He quoted GK Chesterton, that when you stop believing in God you will believe in anything.

Patrick Sookhdeo said that a Christian has nothing to fear from Islam or secularism. The loss of ones faith and ones own soul is the true threat and that comes from within. But for Christianity outside forces can be a threat and those forces in some areas has led to its eradication.

However we must distinguish between beliefs. Secularism is actually a Christian concept, the separation of church and state being given to us by the highest authority when Christ said ‘Render unto Caesar, that which is Caesar’s’.   Secular humanism, by contrast, is actively opposed to religion.  We must also distinguish Muslim people from the Islamic religion and its diverse streams. 

However Islam has been responsible in history for destroying Christianity. He gave details. Arabia having been a pluralist country was, by 644 all Muslim. In his later life Mohammed was not friendly towards Christians. Islam is ideologically hostile to Christianity. Damascus, Jerusalem, Alexandria were all centres of the early church, all fell to Islam. The growth of the Islamic empire was an expansionist drive intrinsic with Islam.

Rules developed which culminated in the development of sharia, ie Islamic law. Christians had the dhimmi, subordinate status; they had to pay the jizya tax, wear special clothes. Sharia lay down the death penalty to all adult male apostates. 

Islam is unique among world religions in the pressure it exerts on other faiths.  This is because no other religion legislates on such a scale and in such inflexible detail about politics, economics, warfare, and the relative rights of various sections of society. 

There have been occasional periods of peaceful coexistence, but usually at times and in places when Christians have accepted their subordinate position under Islam, or when there has been an overarching power, such as the British Empire.  

 Christians have not fared well under Islam. In recent history he listed the fate of the Balkans, the Armenian genocide of 1915, the destruction of Smyrna in 1922, the Assyrians in 1933, the recent Sudanese Civil war. Post Sadaam Iraq, Christians are deliberately targeted by Islam intending to force the entire community of Christians to leave their homeland. The ‘Arab Spring’may herald a 'Christian winter'. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood (founded by Tariq Ramadan’s grandfather – I glanced at him to see what his reaction was – he looked bored) has sparked a new onslaught on Christians. In Afghanistan the entire new convert church also faces annihilation

He said imagine a Christian woman, labouring in the fields. Her co-workers denounce her for blasphemy against Islam and she is thrown in prison. Imagine that the politician who takes up her case is murdered. The Christian politician, the only one in government, who takes over her case next, is also murdered. She faces the death penalty. That is what has happened to Aasia Bibi right now.

Where is Aasia Bibi safest? Under an Islamic state or a secular one?

Imagine me, a convert from Islam to Christianity? I am a traitor – I should be killed. Where would I prefer to live?  In a secular state where the law guarantees me freedom of conscience, freedom to choose or change my faith, and protects me from religious violence?  Or in an Islamic state where such fundamental liberties are denied?

He sat down to much applause from the audience and the approval of his peers on the panel. By this point Tariq Ramadan was looking rather uncomfortable. 

Damian Thompson.

This is a simple question. How does Christianity die? Look at the UK; one of Christianity’s dying rooms. Whatever the reason it is fast, efficient and it isn’t Islam. Christians have stopped going to church? Why? Is it the music? (This is a perennial theme in his blog, the poverty and banality of much modern music in church) The most ominous words in the language are ‘and the next hymn is Shine Jesus Shine’.

It is because of secularism. It cannot sustain an overarching belief. It becomes diffuse, nebulous, and as malleable as a quotation in a Johann Hari article.

Secularism isn’t a proper ideology but do not underestimate it. People are frightened of disapproval during discussion over the dinner table; diet is the new religion.

This is not helped by the Catholic bureaucracy. They will not criticise Islam because they will be criticised round the dinner table and accused of racism. Here he also mentioned the cause of a catholic school under threat from church management – not strictly relevant to the matter of secularism and Islam but a cause dear to his heart. Islam is in danger from pluralism. I do not underestimate the danger of Islam. I am afraid of Islam’s violent tendency. We don’t hear enough about Islamic persecution of Christians due to secular spinelessness and multiculturalism. Thank God for Patrick Sookhdeo and Douglas Murray for drawing our attention to these.  But of the two secularism is worse.

Nick Cohen

I want to argue against hard secularism, and say that ‘soft’ secularism is not really that soft. Our opponents are defining it. I take what Damian said seriously. He read out the classic secular argument of Thomas Jefferson in the bill laid before the general Assembly of Virginia.

WE, the General Assembly of Virginia, do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

This threatens the Anglican Church and the status of the Queen as Head of State and Governor of the Church of England. He described her as a sort of ‘Queen Priestess’.  She isn’t at all but this is not the place for me to start correcting an advisor to the Secular Society on the history of the Established Church.

He continued that Christianity has had the enlightenment in the rich world, but not yet in the poor world which is why we see the persecution of homosexuals in Uganda. And all religions are against that greatest revolution of the 20thcentury, the emancipation of women.

He returned to the extract from Thomas Jefferson – the key word here is argument. I am an atheist; I do not understand religious belief but I enjoy arguing with them. However I do not understand Tariq Ramadan’s last work.

He concluded that militant atheists carry books, militant believers carry guns. No-where in the world are atheists killing Christians but Muslims are.

Tariq Ramadan.

I do not feel good with this motion. Is good for debate but not good for reasonable discussion. We are facing serious times; to reduce this to a simple statement is dangerous. When I listen to what I hear it is not black and white. What is the dogmatic mind? You can find this among Christians and Jews. The way you look at yourselves and the way you look at the other. You are reducing Islam to the other.

It is not true that in Islam if you change your religion you will die.

You are reducing Islam to the way of Islamists and all Islam is not that. And that is very dangerous.

I do not have time to define secularism. Most dangerous are the dogmatic minds. In believers we will find a solution.

I do not want to be tolerated, I want to be respected. I don’t want a patronising attitude. The tolerated can be ignored; to be respected is to be known. I want respect. Are we not all citizens?

I have had dialogue with the Pope, with Jewish Rabbis have challenges. The state gives you space to be, how do you keep your spirituality, your ethics? Secularism is more of a threat to Christianity, rather than Islam.

Doubting minds are dangerous.

Douglas Murray.

Patrick Sookhdeo is one of the Moral Heroes of our day.

Someone said that I have debated with Tariq Ramadan so often are we in danger of becoming friends?  He paused, with impeccable timing.


I can’t address his points; he didn’t make any.

He condemned the churches’ cowardice and moral failure when they see their own co-religionists being persecuted. Even in Britain converts from Islam are in danger and have to hide. I want to talk about what has been happening now, recently. Let’s look at what has happened in the last year.

Abdul Latif – executed in Afghanistan. Iraqi Christians – kidnapped. New Year’s Eve the attack on the churches in Egypt. On the 20thJune, even the Archbishop of Canterbury, a man I rarely agree with condemned the persecution of Christians. On Monday of this week, attacks in Egypt on Copts. Yesterday their homes burnt in Upper Egypt. At this point Tariq Ramadan was again looking boredand had moved his chair even further back so that he was practically sitting behind father Timothy.

As I give you this sorry list I cannot believe that two practising Christians can take to the stage to support this motion. It shows an appalling moral failure, a sort of Stockholm syndrome by proxy. I cannot believe that Father Timothy and Damien really want to be on the side of the stage that they are. They are mixing up the fire with the fire-fighters.

Secularism is our best chance to live together in a pluralist society.

Rod Liddle announced that the debate would be opened to questions from the floor once he had announced the result of the pre debate poll. 

In favour of the motion:         137

Against:                                 67

Don’t know:                          92 

The first question was from a man who wanted the panel to agree that this country was a much better place to live when Christianity was the norm. He did not want his children growing up in a secular society. He wanted everybody who deplored divorce and abortion to stand for 3 seconds to show that every baby has a right to live. He warned that society is descending into nihilism and relativism.

Rod Liddle said that he raised too many questions, none of which were quite relevant but he invited anybody from the panel to elaborate on their view.

Damian Thompson said that never in his life has anything he has said been so misinterpreted as it has this evening by Douglas Murray. I have often spoken out against the cowardice of the church. Douglas has misrepresented my remarks. I wish to make that clear.

Dr Sookhdeo said that the problem lies within us and we must deal with it internally. We must realise our own personal responsibility. Secularism does not pose a physical threat to the church like Islam does. Secularism is a spiritual threat which it is our personal responsibility to face.

Nick Cohen said he feels it is a disgrace for ‘my corner’ ie liberals and lefties not to have defended persecuted converts in this country and Europe. They face a far harder time here and in Europe than they should.

A young man spoke. I have a question for Professor Ramadan. Secularism gives one a choice. Does Islam give people that choice?

Tariq Ramadan answered. I am very surprised by this reaction. Some of you are just trying to confirm your prejudices about Islam.  I am sorry to have to tell you, it was the secular western states that supported Sadaam Hussein for years. Saudi Arabia needs liberating, and who is supporting that regime? The west. I come here tonight and I am made to listen to all these arrogant statements.

The next questioner said that you have to look not just at what Islamic governments do but at what i Muslim communities themselves do, how they behave.  He told of a young Muslim he had met recently who was in a vulnerable situation because his parents had thrown him out of the house as he was courting a Christian girl.

We have not properly defined the terms of the debate. These are very sloppy concepts. 

The next speaker expressed the opinion that Islam has an agenda to dominate the world. Rod Liddle told us that this is not an episode of ‘Hang the Muslim’ and indicated that Tariq Ramadan should respond.

Tariq Ramadan.  Who told you that Islam has an agenda to dominate the world? The way some of you are acting is dangerous. Some of you have dogmatic minds.  There are millions of European Muslims obeying the law. Your anecdotes show nothing – there is no discussion. If that is how you think we should change the motion to Islam is the biggest threat.

As you can see from the photograph by this point Tariq Ramadan has moved his chair so far back he was practically sitting behind Father Timothy, not beside him.  

Seated left to right. Back row. Professor Tariq Ramadan.

Front row, Father Timothy Radcliffe, Damian Thompson, Rod Liddle, Nick Cohen, The Very Rev’d Patrick Sookhdeo  and Douglas Murray.

At this the box for the voting cards reached me so I didn’t get all the next question. The man said he thought that Douglas was right and that we should leave the academic debate and start doing something practical about the oppression. His question was given to Nick Cohen to answer first.

Nick Cohen. I am not sure I entirely agree with the concept of Eurabia. However I do object to Tariq’s dismissal of our doubts and concerns as merely anecdotal. There are oppressive states. Let’s not forget that just as the first victims of the Nazis were German, the first victims of the theocracy of Iran are Muslims. There is a real threat.

Then it was the turn of Patrick Sookhdeo.

He said, Tariq Ramadan, you have suggested that Islam has no structure, that it is an amorphous mass. Come down to earth; we have read your books. You detailed there the order that there is in Islam. He referred to the penal code of Pakistan.

You, as a scholar, know full well that all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence call for the death penalty for apostasy in an adult male.

Referring back to an earlier query raised while trying to define the motion he said that we must not deal with this as a parochial issue. That Islam is a threat in other countries but secularism is the immediate threat to me in this country, now. We have to look at this globally.

Father Timothy said that he had come across many Christian organisations working with the oppressed in Islamic countries but never a secular one. Douglas Murray countered that he knew of several, of which the most obvious one is Medecin san Frontiers, who help anybody and everybody.

The speakers were given one minute each to sum up. 

Douglas Murray

Islam isn’t a monolith. It is complex. There are many specific cases not being addressed.

If you have seen the plight of you fellow religionists, how can you be on that side of this debate? Do not pretend crimes against Christians are not happening; they are. 

Tariq Ramadan

I am very sad to hear things I never said. I never denied anything. (Dear reader, he did. I heard him.)  It does not help the debate to make Islam the great danger. 

Nick Cohen

Don’t take a free society for granted; they don’t happen very often. Religious tolerance is rare. It had to be fought for, by the ancestors of some of us in this room. He quoted John Milton, who was anything but an atheist. What worries me, especially Tariq Ramadan is to take it (a free society) for granted and dismiss it. People born into a religion should have the right to question it and change it. 

Damian Thompson

You don’t have to dislike secularism to vote against this motion and you don’t have to like Islam either. I am not comfortable sharing a platform with Professor Ramadan. 

Patrick Sookhdeo

English Christians and the church need courage and conviction to argue their case. They can do so in a climate that has had an enlightenment. Islam has not. If you were me or Aasia Bibi where would you like to live?

Father Timothy Radcliffe

We must value tolerance and cool argument and in this country that is rooted in Christianity.

Secularism is unfortunately not that tolerant. China isn’t, nor Vietnam. Secularism has a place in the debate but it can descend into intolerance. 

Rod Liddle announced the result of the final vote. 

In favour of the motion:      108

Against the motion:             167

Don’t know:                          8 

This photograph shows the breakdown of votes, before and after.


Photographs E Weatherwax June 2011

Tuesday 5th July – My notes of Dr Sookhdeo's speech amended; much obliged.



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