Tehmina Kazi on Pastor McConnell and freedom of expression

This Wednesday, Pastor James McConnell, the former pastor of the largest church in Northern Ireland, will appear in court for describing Islam as “heathen” and “Satanic.” In a sermon that was broadcast at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in May 2014, McConnell boomed that Islam is a “doctrine spawned in Hell.”

Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service subsequently accused McConnell of violating the 2003 Communications Act by “sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive.”

Far from withdrawing his controversial comments, Pastor McConnell remains defiant. In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, he said: “I am 78 years of age and in ill health but jail knows no fear for me. They can lock me up with sex offenders, hoodlums and paramilitaries and I will do my time. I have no regrets about what I said. I do not hate Muslims, but I denounce Islam as a doctrine and I make no apologies for that. I will be pleading ‘not guilty’ when I stand in the dock in August.”

In an attempt to clarify his remarks, Pastor McConnell stated on his own website: “My sermon was drawing attention to how many followers of Islam have, regrettably, interpreted the doctrine of Islam as justification for violence.  I have qualified my comments by reference to those who use their religion as justification for violence.  As a preacher of the word of God, it is this interpretation of the doctrine of Islam which I am condemning.”

In my work as the Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy (www.bmsd.org.uk), I have debated – and tried to influence – dozens of individuals with views similar to McConnell’s. Those who publically critique Islam as a belief system, whether this emanates from Christian, atheist or other perspectives. And I am more convinced than ever that the law should not be used as a blunt instrument to stymie freedom of expression, unless there is direct incitement to violence or hatred against individuals. We should NEVER find ourselves in a situation where beliefs are afforded greater protection than individuals.

This does not mean that I have ignored the backdrop of anti-Muslim sentiment in Northern Ireland, which recently escalated into attacks in South and East Belfast, by the Ulster Volunteer Force. A Muslim woman reported to Tell MAMA last week that Muslims are receiving death threats; the perpetrators are allegedly associated with a Loyalist group. Such attacks must be addressed with the full force of the law. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission referred to mounting attacks on minority groups when they originally expressed concerns about Pastor McConnell’s sermon. They cited the direction given by the UN Human Rights Committee to the UK Government in 2008, when it said that the Government must: “take energetic measures to combat and eliminate negative public attitudes towards Muslims” and more particularly, “ensure that the fight against terrorism does not lead to raising suspicion against all Muslims”.

But the waters are muddied when it comes to “incitement” vs “causing offence.” It is worth noting here that in our own domestic law, there is a higher burden of proof applied to incitement of religious hatred cases, compared with incitement to racial hatred. Criminalising someone like McConnell – as damaging as his sentiments are – will do nothing to eliminate negative public attitudes against Muslims OR Islam. According to Tell MAMA, a further anti-Muslim backlash could be on the cards, whether he is convicted or not. Peaceful cross-community relations can only be achieved through years of careful relationship-building, such as that carried out by the Corrymeela Centre. What about people who criticise the religion itself? As BMSD said in our satirical protest against Al-Muhajiroun in 2009, “Debate those who insult Islam. You might just change a mind.”

There is another fly in the ointment. When Pastor McConnell was questioned by police about his sermon in June last year, the only complaint received was from a Dr Raied Al-Wazzan of Belfast Islamic Centre. Dr Al-Wazzan became notorious for his comments on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme in January 2015, where he said: “Since the Islamic State took over, it (Mosul) has become the most peaceful city in the world.” After an inevitable and deeply justified backlash, Dr Al-Wazzan apologised and retracted his statements (although many speculated that the damage to his “Mega-Mosque” bid had already been done). In July 2015, Dr Al-Wazzan was named as a prosecution witness against Pastor McConnell. Any impartial observer would question why anyone with a less than perfect record would instigate such proceedings against another public (or semi-public) figure.

I would like to see more voices in this debate. Voices that genuinely promote minority rights (as opposed to whipping up grievances), that are wedded to secular values (as opposed to fundamentalist ones), and have taken positive action to build communities (as opposed to letting negative sentiments fester for their own selfish interests). The input of London-based imam, Muhammad Al-Hussaini, was welcome here: “I therefore wish to place on the record my deep concern and opposition to the criminalising of theological disagreement, at a time when our society should in fact be fostering better quality disagreement.”

Incidentally, Al-Hussaini is a sean-nos singer who has competed in Gaelic music competitions all over Ireland. I would wager that his passion has done more to build bridges between Irish and Muslim communities than any amount of traditional “community leadership” ever could.

Tehmina-Khazi-Bulbula-e1416837433884Tehmina Kaz
Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy

Tehmina is the Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, a group of Muslim democrats working to raise awareness about democracy, particularly secular democracy, within British Muslim communities and the wider public. She is executive producer of the documentary film Hidden Heart, and was also a freelance consultant for English PEN’s Faith and Free Speech in Schools project.

Tehmina is a trustee of Hope Not Hate, an advisory board member of the Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks project, an Inclusive Mosque Initiative committee member, and was a judge for the Accord Coalition‘s Inclusive Schools Award, 2014.

Tehmina was named  one of the BBC’s 100 Women in October 2013 and 2014, and held the Eric Lane Fellowship at Clare College, Cambridge from January to March 2014. She is a Centenary Young Fellow of the RSA.