Most of the people associated with Atheist NI were satisfied to see pastor McConnell judged not guilty of charges brought against him relating to a sermon in which he claimed Islam had been authored in Hell and in which he made a number of disparaging remarks about Muslims.
A statement written by Atheist NI chairman Boyd Sleator was reproduced in large part in a front page article in the News Letter. It summed up the general consensus amongst our group that whilst pastor McConnell’s sermon was insulting and absurd it did not constitute the crime of “gross offense”.
As an organisation Atheist NI strongly oppose any moves towards exercising blasphemy laws and restricting freedom of expression.
The Belfast Islamic Centre have recently issued a statement on their Facebook page in relation to the case. Their wording is very vague and open to interpretation. Given that their statement is open to interpretation, and given that some have chosen to interpret it as an attack on freedom of speech the Belfast Islamic Society would benefit from clarifying their remarks so we can know exactly where they stand and what they want.
Their statement begins:
“We Muslims believe in the freedom of expression. However freedom of expression doesn’t justify offending and insulting others’ faith and beliefs that in its turn leads to unhealthy atmosphere of disunity and mistrust.”
In and of itself freedom does not justify things, it allows things. As to whether the pastor was justified in his remarks is clearly a matter of ongoing debate, but no longer a matter for the law. That the pastor is allowed to make his remarks is the pertinent issue at hand. It would be good to know if the Belfast Islamic Centre acknowledges this.
An unhealthy atmosphere of disunity and mistrust can result from offence and insult. True enough.
It can also result from feeling unable to express yourself and needing to constantly watch what you say. So when dealing with insult and offence, it would be better to respond with clear and adult argumentation as to why your opponent is wrong, not the brute implement of the law or unqualified and petulant cries of “I’m offended by that!”
“Although we disagree with the verdict description of Pastor McConnell remarks as “not grossly offensive”, nevertheless we have always been ready to implement the values of forgiveness and pardon as a way forward to continue building our relations with different communities based on mutual love and respect.”
In wording their statement like this the Belfast Islamic Centre do not seem to distinguish between disagreeing with the verdict in a colloquial sense, or disagreeing with it in a legal sense.
The judge was not called upon to decide whether or not the pastor had caused offence in the colloquial sense, he was there to decide whether or not the degree of offence was something that should have been legally actionable.
It would be good to see the Belfast Islamic Centre clarify their meaning here – do they think pastor McConnell should be in jail or not?
And if they do, what sincerity lies behind their claim that they “believe in freedom of expression”?