Free speech? Maybes aye, maybes no.

If you are thinking of moving to Northern Ireland, think twice if you are a preacher.

Of all the places in the world for a preacher to face prosecution for doing what a preacher is supposed to do, it is hard to believe that a preacher should face prosecution in Belfast. That the chief prosecution witness has made public statements – which he hastily retracted – supporting ISIL, makes the whole thing even more bizarre, not to say reprehensible.

Pastor James McConnell is one of the most successful Christian leaders in the UK in the last fifty years. He managed to build a mega church from scratch during the years when the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland were at their most intense. In many ways his church was ahead of its time, attracting people from both sides in a divided community.

Now, at seventy-eight years of age, he finds himself facing prosecution under the 2003 Communications Bill because he expressed his views about Islam.

Whatever you might think about what Pastor McConnell said, direct and forthright language is not something that he or his supporters have suddenly invented in an attempt to be controversial.

Pastor McConnell stands in a tradition of Christian preaching that stretches back through the Christian centuries to the Lord Himself. In fact, if you want to be really accurate, it goes right back to Enoch the seventh from Adam (Jude 14-15).

It’s a tradition of prophetic speech that you will find in any of the major branches of Christendom – Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox. So let’s not dismiss this case as an example of a lone fundamentalist who is angry about Islam and won’t dance to the tune of a pluralist agenda. That would be a mistake. If St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the Doctors of the Catholic church, is able to watch from heaven – let’s take it that he is in heaven – we might find that he has every sympathy with Pastor McConnell.

The outcry against this prosecution has not only come from the Christian church.An Islamic scholar and the National Secular Society have also come out in support of Pastor McConnell’s right to free speech.

Finding the right response to the growth of radical Islam has proved taxing for a supposedly liberal society. Two conflicting liberal instincts kick in. On the one hand there is what seems at times like an excessive desire to prove our liberal credentials by embracing Islam in all its manifestations. On the other, there is a deep uneasiness at how exacting and prescriptive even a moderate Islamic worldview is.

This unease is seen in the way that government and sometimes the media have reacted to Islamic terrorism and violence. A recent example is referring to ISIL as DAESH. Using the latter designation conveniently enables discussion about the violent phenomenon that is ISIL / DAESH without having to connect it with Islam  . The argument that this violence is not perpetrated by real Muslims is a comforting thought for many in our society. Somehow we want to believe that everyone in our society has a common belief in Western liberal democratic values.

This rather flimsy attempt to paper over the cracks of religious pluralism conveniently ignores two things: that those who are fighting for ISIL / DAESH see themselves as truly Islamic and are seen as truly Islamic by many in Britain.; and that not everyone in our society holds to Western, democratic liberal values. A BBC poll commissioned earlier this year found that 51% of British Muslims believe that clerics who preach violence against the West are not out of touch with mainstream Muslim opinion. Although the BBC tried to put a very positive spin on the results, former Islamist, Maajid Nawaaz, found the results of the poll “profoundly disconcerting”,

Whilst one can understand why government and even media might want to be the arbiters of real and false Islam, one has to ask on what authority they do so. Additionally, we might want to ask why this distinction of real and false adherents of a faith is not accorded to other faiths. I don’t remember hearing any commentator make this kind of distinction when paedophile scandals in the Catholic church were exposed. The perpetrators of such abuse were not deemed non-Catholic because of their deeds. You might counter that much of the abuse was perpetrated by leaders of the Catholic church. I would reply that much of the encouragement of jihad in the Middle East and elsewhere is driven by imams.

You can draw your own conclusions as to why prosecuting a protestant pastor might be attractive to the authorities. Whatever the motive, even if it is simply an attempt to apply the law to the letter, to present a Christian leader as a religious extremist and prosecute him, ticks the boxes of fighting extremism and parading liberal pluralist credentials.

If, however, this prosecution is motivated by a desire to apply the law to the letter, why has Richard Dawkins not been cautioned or prosecuted? He is on record as comparing Islam to Naziism . And he did equate religious instruction of children with child abuse. Whatever way you look at that, he is labelling parents of whatever faith, who teach their children that faith child abusers. In a society that claims not to believe in Satan, it is surely more serious to label religious people “child abusers” than to label a system of belief “satanic”.

Christians have always been criticised and vilified. That is not the issue here. The issue is that we are supposed to live in a society that values free speech. For Pastor McConnell to stand in the dock on this issue, beggars belief. Especially when the actions of ISIL, a group that the chief prosecution witness has supported in the past, serve to validate Pastor McConnell’s position.

Perhaps it is not Aquinas or the National Secular Society that I should be quoting, but the famous words of Victor Meldrew: “I don’t believe it.”


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