To the Royal Geographical Society for The Spectator Debate About Secularism and Islam

I thought I would attend this debate while debates are still permitted.

On Wednesday evening I attended a debate at the Royal Geographical Society organised by The Spectator, “Secularism is a Greater Threat to Christianity than Islam”.

The evening was chaired by Rod Liddle (sitting in for Andrew Neil at the last minute) and he did a cracking job. He kicked off by thanking the event’s sponsors, Brewin Dolphin, before nobly confessing he didn’t have the slightest clue who they were or what they did. He recommended we all buy Brewin Dolphins if we came across them.

The evening was enjoyable and the outcome was that the motion was not carried (i.e. Islam is a greater threat to Christianity than Secularism).

Speaking for the motion were Prof. Tariq Ramadan, Father Timothy Radcliffe and Damian Thompson. Thompson made some worthwhile points and got a few laughs with his tart quip that Secularism is “as malleable as a Johann Hari quote”. Radcliffe’s contributions were useless, as were Ramadan’s. It became clear that Ramadan has a weird and inexplicable fetish involving the word “essentialize”.

Speaking against the motion were Nick Cohen, The Very Rev’d Patrick Sookhdeo and Douglas Murray. Murray was excellent, Cohen was very good and Sookhdeo eventually came good after a tame and uninspiring start.

Murray told us he gets asked whether there is a danger of him becoming friends with Ramadan, as they have appeared on so many debates like this together. “No”, he said, calmly but reassuringly convincingly.

Ramadan is on record as refusing to clearly condemn the stoning of women. At one point he told us that tolerance was not enough for Islam and that it had to be respected. My entire eight pints of infidel blood boiling, I patiently waited for my turn to speak when Liddle opened up the discussion to the floor but unfortunately we ran out of time.

I was gutted, and this feeling was only compounded by the poor calibre of many of the audience contributions, from both sides. I wanted to remind everyone in the magnificent auditorium, whichever side of the argument they were on, that we were there to debate and discuss, and how lucky each and every one of us was to have the rights of freedom of speech and expression. I specifically wanted to ask Ramadan about Islam’s refusal to embrace these freedoms, for example concerning depictions and criticisms of the so-called prophet.

Respect for an ideology must be freely given or it is not respect. Respect for an ideology can only be freely given following a full, frank and unhindered dissection of its strengths and of its weaknesses. Any ideology which demands respect as a pre-condition for such a dissection cannot and must not be afforded respect; the most any such ideology can ever aspire to, on a very good day, is fear. Fear might well be a valuable instrument of the powerful against the weak and the vulnerable but it is very, very different to respect.

Islam will never be taken seriously, less so respected, so long as its advocates demand respect as an entry requirement to a discussion about Islam.

Freedom of speech and expression are useless and pointless as fancy theories or obtuse academic constructs; they must be audibly and visibly exercised. We are privileged to have these freedoms and we shall use them to investigate any ideology, even if this causes offence. In fact, especially if this causes offence. Because if these core rights, which are the foundational rights of the Enlightenment and the basis for our whole way of life, only apply to areas on which everyone is agreed and are derailed at the point where people disagree or are offended, then the conclusion one must draw is: those rights do not exist.

Let me finish by essentializing the golden rule for freedom of speech and freedom of expression: use it, or you will lose it.