On May 14th 2014, Pastor James McConnell preached a sermon in his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in which he told his congregation that ‘a new evil’ had arisen in Britain. It was wrong to characterise Islam as little more than a variation of Christianity and Judaism. On the contrary, according to Pastor McConnell, ‘Islam’s ideas about God, about humanity, about salvation are vastly different from the teaching of the Holy Scripture. Islam is heathen. Islam is Satanic. Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.’
This probably came as no surprise to the Whitewell congregation who aren’t entirely sure that some of the professing Christian denominations in Ireland are really Christians at all. Effectively, Jim McConnell was preaching to the converted. It seems unlikely that he would have made someone think any less of Islam than they already did.
McConnell’s congregation streams all its church services online. This is great for anyone who is unable to attend any service in person but it means that literally anyone in the world can see a service and take offence at something the preacher says. In the case of McConnell’s sermon criticising Islam, that’s exactly what happened. Dr Raied Al-Wazzan from the Belfast Islamic Centre claimed that the pastor’s remarks were ‘irresponsible’ and claimed that McConnell would have to answer for ‘any racial attacks on any Muslim in Northern Ireland’. The Police Service of Northern Ireland announced that they were investigating a ‘possible hate-crime’ after a complaint by Dr Al-Wazzan who was to become the chief witness for the prosecution against Pastor McConnell.
There’s a certain irony there, as statements from Dr Al-Wazzan made to Radio Ulster in January 2014 could have caused more trouble for Belfast Muslims than anything said by James McConnell.
In his statement of complaint to the PSNI, Dr Al-Wazzan denounced McConnell’s “terrible comments” and described his “general sweeping statements” as “offensive and disgusting”. Yet this complainant told Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme that Islamic State/Daesh, which has carried out many atrocities against Christians, Yazidis, Assyrians, gay people and other non-Sunni Muslims and forced millions of people to flee their homes, had been a positive force in Mosul, his home city in Iraq. He said:
“Since the Islamic State took over, it has become the most peaceful city in the world. Yes, there are other things going wrong there… they are murdering people, I agree, but you can go from east to west of the city without fear.”
At the time his comments provoked public outrage and Dr Al-Wazzan later withdrew them and apologised. Now, it is likely that Dr Al-Wazzan was comparing the chaotic life before Daesh took over in Mosul with the more settled time afterwards. It probably was more peaceful – for male Sunni Muslims who did what they were told by the new powers-that-be. In such circumstances, you might be forgiven for thinking that the good doctor might be willing to give the pastor some leeway in matters of nuance and context, but not a bit of it.
In his statement to the PSNI about Pastor McConnell, Dr Al-Wazzan claims that many Muslims in Northern Ireland are professionals while the pastor’s congregation “may include impressionable, uneducated people”. No “general sweeping statements” there then!
Not unreasonably, Pastor McConnell responded to reports of Dr Al-Wazzan’s complaint saying: “The PPS’s case against me is summed up by the fact that the chief witness the prosecution is calling is a man who made highly controversial comments about Isis. A man who praised the rule in Iraq of Isis murderers will be giving evidence against me – it’s like a pantomime.”
Dr Al-Wazzan’s argument seems to run along the lines of, “What this man said offends me, so he ought to be punished for it.” This was in stark contrast to a more reasonable Islamic scholar, Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini. In line with traditional notions of freedom of speech, and opinion, Dr Al-Hussaini responded to the complaint saying that, “I strongly uphold the moral right of Pastor McConnell and myself, as Christian and Muslim, to disagree about matters of doctrine and belief. I express my deep dismay that my fellow citizen is being subjected to criminal proceedings, when at no time have any of the statements he has made incited physical harm against anyone.”
As a Muslim academic and iman, he was “hardly going to agree” with the pastor’s remarks but, “Nevertheless I believe it is the very freedom of speech of Christians and Muslims to disagree and critique religious ideas that is on trial here – wherein lies the moral imperative to take a stand.”
That ought to be the crux of the matter. Anyone who threatens any other individual or community with violence or who incites violence against another individual or community deserves to be prosecuted, convicted and locked up for a good long time. Nothing in Pastor McConnell’s sermon ever approached crossing that line. What Dr Al-Wazzan tried to do was close down any criticism of his religion whatsoever on the grounds that it offended him.
It might be galling for polite, liberal folk like us to hear Pastor McConnell going off on one about Muslims. He might very well be an outrageous bigot with unfashionable and erroneous views about other groups too; Catholics, the LGBT community, and other Christians who don’t accept his point of view. In fact, I would argue that he is an outrageous bigot. (If the verdict had gone the other way, I could possibly have been prosecuted for expressing that opinion in print). What other than a paranoid bigot could you call someone who told the Sunday Life the following?
“Millions of Muslims are taking over the world and that’s the reason why the cell groups are planted in Britain, they are planted to take over Britain. Eventually they will take over Northern Ireland. The Book of Ezekiel and the Book of Zechariah tells us that the Muslim countries will side with Russia and they will come against Israel. The Muslim theme is destroy the Saturday people and destroy the Sunday people, what they mean by that is the Saturday people are the Jewish people and the Sunday people are the Christian people.”
Extremist outfits like Daesh and Al Qaeda doubtless do want world domination but, despite their grandiose claims, they don’t speak for the majority of Muslims in the world any more than dissident Irish republican gropuscules speak for the Irish nation or Willie Frazer’s Protestant Coalition for the PUL community in Northern Ireland. McConnell is talking nonsense. He deserves to be challenged for this. He does not deserve to be fined or go to prison.
Many folk who like to call themselves liberal or progressive seem to believe that the protection of tender ears from ‘offensive speech’ trumps everyone else’s right to freedom of expression. Rather than confront and expose the fallacies and nonsense, these folk just want to close down all discussion and criminalise the speakers and writers that offend them.
Nevertheless, bigots have the right to express their opinions and share their hopes and fears with the rest of us. It’s a fact that we only truly have rights if outrageous paranoid bigots have rights too. If freedom of speech means anything, it cannot only be for those sweet reasonable people who happen by good fortune to agree with us. It must apply to those people who offend us. It must even apply to those who deliberately set out to offend us.
This fact was realised by quite a few unlikely defenders of Pastor McConnell’s freedom of speech. Father Patrick McCafferty gave evidence on his behalf at the trial telling the court that he had probably said worse about Catholicism in the past but he took it in his stride. He called out the pastor on some the things he said and talked to him about it. He never dreamed of having the pastor prosecuted because he was offended. He told the court, “Pastor McConnell has no hatred to anyone whatsoever and the people of his church are not people who go out in this community and cause trouble. They are the exact opposite.” Dr Al Hussaini was not permitted to testify in court.
Perhaps the most striking – and unlikely – support for Pastor McConnell came from the National Secular Society in London. The NSS campaigns manager Stephen Evans issued a press statement in McConnell’s defence saying: “This baffling decision to persist with the prosecution of Pastor McConnell represents a reckless and grievous encroachment upon his – and everybody else’s – fundamental right to free expression.
“In our view Pastor McConnell was well within his rights to refuse a warning that would have remained on his criminal record for a year, particularly given that he clearly did not incite violence in his sermon and the PPS do not even appear to claim that he did… the actions of the Public Prosecution Service are likely to have a chilling effect on everyone’s freedom to speak openly about their beliefs.
“In an open and free society, we should all feel able to express our beliefs and opinions without fear of criminal sanction – regardless of how unpalatable others may find them.
“The weapon of ‘offence’ is increasingly being used to stifle free expression. The desire to live in a harmonious and tolerant society is a noble one, but will not be achieved by the suppression of fundamental freedoms.”
As the NSS statement indicated, Pastor McConnell refused to accept a caution so the Public Prosecution Service went ahead with their flimsy case against him. The PPS did not charge him using ‘hate crime’ legislation; presumably because there was no evidence of any incitement on the pastor’s part. Instead, he was charged under the 2003 Communications Act with improper use of a public electronic communications network and causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network.
The judge who heard the case, Liam Kelly, acquitted Pastor McConnell of making ‘grossly offensive’ remarks about the Muslim religion. He ruled that his remarks were ‘offensive’ but not ‘grossly offensive’ saying that, “the courts need to be very careful not to criminalise speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive. It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances.” Hear, hear.
Had McConnell been convicted, all our freedoms would have been undermined., not just those of conservative Pentecostal Christians. All kinds of zealots would claim victimhood and set the law on their opponents. Pastor McConnell is the unlikely champion of our freedom to criticise his narrow form of Christianity, the freedom of the NSS to criticise all religion as a load of nonsense and indeed the freedom of Dr Al Wazzan to tell us about the haven of tranquillity enjoyed by the citizens of Mosul since Daesh took power there. Thanks to this ruling, our fundamental freedoms still stand. Thank you, Judge Kelly.