Today sees the start of the trial against James McConnell, pastor of the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland. Pastor McConnell is being prosecuted under the 2003 Communications Act having been accused of making “grossly offensive” remarks against Islam. It is not specifically that he has spoken against Islam that is the cause of prosecution but that he allegedly streamed a grossly offensive message over the internet. The trial centres on a 30 second clip, part of a 45 minute sermon, delivered and streamed across the internet in May 2014 in which Pastor McConnell labelled Islam “heathen”, “satanic” and “a doctrine spawned in Hell” having just claimed ““People say there are good Muslims in Britain – that may be so – but I don’t trust them”. Here is the offending clip:
The trial is not focused on what church leaders are permitted to state in their own churches per se, rather it concerns whether what is said within their churches is broadcastable. As the Archbishop Cranmer blog rightly notes “if your church live-streams its Sunday sermons, and the content of those sermons may be deemed to be ‘grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’ (as, hopefully, they may be to any sinner), your pastor, priest or vicar can expect a visit from the local constabulary”.
The Guardian report, Muhammad al-Hussaini – senior research fellow in Islamic Studies at the Westminster Institute – has backed Pastor McConnell’s right to criticise Islam. Speaking outside Belfast Town Hall, he said:
Against the flaming backdrop of torched Christian churches, bloody executions and massacres of faith minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere, it is therefore a matter of utmost concern that, in this country, we discharge our common duty steadfastly to defend the freedom of citizens to discuss, debate and critique religious ideas and beliefs – restricting only speech which incites to physical violence against others.
Moreover, in a free and democratic society we enter into severe peril when we start to confuse what we perhaps ought or ought not to say, with what in law we are allowed to, or not allowed to say.
Could Pastor McConnell have engaged Islam more sensitively? Certainly. Could he have used his platform to engage in better, more reasoned discussion with his Muslim neighbours? For sure. Is it fair or reasonable to consider every Muslim person untrustworthy? Absolutely not. As Cranmer rightly points out, “Can you hear Jesus ever preaching: ‘People say there are good Samaritans in Israel – that may be so – but I don’t trust them..’ Not trusting any Muslim anywhere is a particularly facile understanding of human nature which plays to negative stereotypes”.
But none of that ought to be against the law. Pastor McConnell should be free to believe and state such views, irrespective of how ill-conceived they may be. If he would rather insult Islam instead of engaging with it, and if he would offend rather than seek to win and convince, that is surely his legal right. As Muhammad al-Hussaini rightly said “we enter into severe peril when we start to confuse what we perhaps ought or ought not to say, with what in law we are allowed to, or not allowed to say”.
It is staggering that public money is being wasted on such proceeding as this. Have the police not got better things to do with their increasingly scant resources than prosecute people for saying things that might be considered unpleasant? If “hate preaching” is now priority one, presumably Richard Dawkins will soon be prosecuted for broadcasting his belief that “Islam is one of the great evils in the world” (of which this is but one example among many):
For the record, I think Richard Dawkins should also be permitted to make these comments too. It is simply incredible that two comments, with a virtually identical potential for offence, can be treated so differently. Where is the righteous outcry against the New Atheists? If people (rightly) want to allow them to offend religion, why are religious leaders not afforded the same luxury?
Whether we care for Pastor McConnell’s approach to interfaith relations or not, he should surely be allowed to voice his views without fear of police interference. His approach to evangelism may be questionable and his comments may be callow but it is no less his right to be able to state and disseminate them. Pastor McConnell has not called for anyone to come to any harm nor has he attempted to lead a violent protest against the Muslims in our midst. He has simply voiced some unhelpful and unnecessary comments which, at the very worst, may upset a few feelings. As Lord Justice Sedley said in 1999, “Free speech includes not only the offensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative, providing it does not tend to provoke violence”. Unwelcome and provocative they may have been but incitement to violence it most certainly was not.
It is an unfortunate and, frankly, jejune approach to modern life to continually call for things to be banned simply because we don’t like them or fail to understand them. It is not credible to shut down any discussion or comment that does not accord with our own predispositions or happens to offend our particular sensibilities. It is high time we stopped allowing subjective sensibilities to be the arbiter of legal comment. There is no right to not be offended yet we are repeatedly allowing offence to overrule the right won centuries ago to say whatever we please. And it is all very well when it is only those eccentric, swivel-eyed evangelicals facing the brunt of the law but, to paraphrase Martin Niemoller, then they came for the evangelicals, but I did not speak out because I wasn’t an evangelical.