Published: 14:00 GMT Daylight Time - Friday 01 July 2011
Barnabas director wins debate arguing Islam greater threat to Christianity than secularism
Country/Region: Europe, United Kingdom
Barnabas Fund's International Director Dr Patrick Sookhdeo was on the winning side in a prestigious debate, organised by The Spectator, arguing that Islam is a greater threat to Christianity than is secularism.
Dr Sookhdeo spoke alongside Observer columnist Nick Cohen, and Douglas Murray, an author, journalist and Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society, against the motion "Secularism is a greater threat to Christianity than Islam" at the event in London on Wednesday (29 June).
Damian Thompson, the Telegraph's leader writer and blogs' editor, Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, and Father Timothy Radcliffe OP, a Dominican friar from Blackfriars, Oxford, spoke for the motion.
Before the debate, the audience voted in support of the motion but the house shifted decisively against it after hearing arguments put forward by Sookhdeo, Cohen and Murray.
A Christian has nothing to fear from either Islam or secularism. The loss of faith, the loss of one’s own soul, are the true threats to a Christian. And they come from within. For these the Christian himself or herself is principally responsible, and can blame no one and nothing else.
For Christianity, however, outside forces can be a threat; indeed they can lead to its complete eradication. But which is the greater threat, Islam or secularism?
To answer this, we must look beyond the UK today to the global and historical situation. We must carefully distinguish secularism – as mentioned in our motion – from secular humanism. Secularism provides for the religious impartiality of the state and civil society, guarantees religious freedom, and is a Christian concept in origin. Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” (Mark 12:17) Secular humanism, by contrast, is actively opposed to religion. We must also distinguish Muslim people from the Islamic religion and its diverse streams.
Never and nowhere has secularism destroyed Christianity. But the same cannot be said for Islam. When Muhammad began his religious work, around 610 CE, the Arabian Peninsula was inhabited by pagans, Christians and Jews. By 644, the whole population was Muslim; the other religions no longer existed there.
Muhammad’s early encounters with Christians were peaceable. When his first followers were persecuted, he even sent a group of them to seek refuge in Christian Abyssinia, where they were welcomed in. Later in life, however, his attitude changed, as clearly reflected in Quranic verses of the time. Christians were no longer considered friends, but enemies to be shunned. From that time, Islam has been ideologically hostile to Christianity.
In 635 Muslim armies conquered the Christian city of Damascus. In 638 Jerusalem fell, followed in 641 by Alexandria, a centre of the early Church fathers. Within a hundred years of Muhammad’s death, the Muslims had established a mighty Islamic empire, much of it carved out of formerly Christian territories. It is naïve to believe, as some have argued, that the Muslims simply responded to Christian pleas for protection from their own rulers. No, the growth of the Islamic empire was primarily due to an expansionist drive that is intrinsic to the doctrines of Islam itself.
Christianity therefore found itself under the rule of Islam. With the passing of time, various agreements and rules were developed to govern the relationship of Christians with their Muslim rulers. This process culminated in the creation of the sharia, Islamic law, which permitted the presence of Christians within Islamic societies, but not as equal citizens with Muslims. Christians were classified as dhimmi, subjugated people with a subservient role. Dhimmi were required to pay a poll tax, called jizya , as a sign of their submission to the Islamic state. They were restricted by a host of regulations, all designed to reinforce the message that they were of lesser value than Muslims. At one time, this distinction even had to be shown in the style and colour of their clothing. Islamic law was stricter still for Christians who had converted from Islam, laying down a death penalty for 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 in Islamic history. Consider in recent times the Balkans in 1875-6, the Armenian Genocide of 1915, Smyrna in 1922, the Assyrians in 1933.
In our own day, we have had the Sudanese civil war of 1983 to 2005, in which some two million people died, principally Christians but also some Muslims and some from African traditional religions. This appalling death toll was due to efforts by the Northern Islamic government to Islamize and Arabize the mainly non-Muslim, African South.
In post-Saddam Iraq, the Iraqi Church, which has existed since New Testament times, has been decimated. Barely a quarter of the 1990 Christian population now remains. I do not mean that Christians have been caught accidentally in the conflict. I mean that they have been deliberately targeted by Islamists who threaten, kidnap, torture and murder them and bomb their churches, in an effort to force the entire Iraqi Christian community to leave their homeland.
The so-called “Arab spring” may herald a “Christian winter” as Islamist groups step into power vacuums left by the fall of longstanding regimes. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has already created new alarms for the Church in a context where Christians have faced discrimination and injustice for nearly fourteen hundred years.
In Afghanistan, the entire Afghan convert Church faces possible extinction, either at the hand of their own government or by the Taliban.
So which threatens Christianity more? Islam or secularism?
Imagine that you are a woman in Pakistan, a Christian woman, a labourer, barely able to read. You are in prison, falsely accused by Muslim co-workers of defiling the name of Muhammad. You have been sentenced to death. A prominent Muslim politician who spoke in your defence has been assassinated. A prominent Christian politician, who then took up your cause, has also been assassinated. Top leaders of the more moderate Muslims of Pakistan, the Barelvis, have warned that you must not be pardoned. The president, judiciary, military and religious establishment are all calling for your death.
This is the current situation of Aasia Bibi, a mother of five, on death row.
Which kind of country do you think Aasia Bibi wants to live in? An Islamic state or a secular state? Where do you think she is more likely to find justice and security?
Now imagine that you are me, a convert from Islam to Christianity. As an apostate, I am viewed by Muslims as a traitor, and Islamic law says I should be killed. In Muslim countries, many converts are killed, on rare occasions executed by the state but more commonly assassinated unofficially or murdered by relatives.
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?
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, 29 June 2011
© Patrick Sookhdeo, 2011