Free Speech, Fire and Brimstone

Belfast Pastor James McConnell has gone on trial for using an “electronic communications network” – the Internet – to broadcast a “grossly offensive” sermon in May last year.

Arriving at Belfast magistrates’ court this morning, he was met by a small crowd of people who had gathered to lend their support. Placards bearing the messages “civil and religious liberty for all” and “protect our free speech” featured prominently. 

Inside, more than 100 people packed the public gallery. During a playback of the “grossly offensive” sermon, which included a number of gospel songs, supporters swayed in their seats, clapped their hands and tapped their feet.

You might ask: What could be so offensive that prosecutors deem it necessary to haul a non-violent 78-year-old born again Christian before a Judge? The answer lies with the grand old rhetoric and Biblical bombast of the fire and brimstone style of Christian preaching.

McConnell’s exact words: “Islam is satanic” – not exactly polite dinner table conversation, but nothing Salman Rushdie didn’t say with his infamous novel, The Satanic Verses, which in its time was talked over the table at many a dinner party.

If you cast your mind back to 1989, you’ll remember the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie, so “grossly offensive” was his novel. In 1998, after nearly a decade living in hiding, Rushdie re-emerged unscathed. His literary compatriots were not so fortunate. 

Hitoshi Igarashi, Rushdie’s Japanese translator, was stabbed to death at a university northeast of Tokyo in 1991. That same year, the Italian translator Ettore Capriolo survived a near-fatal stabbing in his apartment in Milan.

William Nygaard, Rushdie’s publisher in Norway, survived a near-fatal shooting outside his home in a suburb in Oslo in 1993. That same year, the Turkish translator Aziz Nelin was the intended target in the events that led to the Sivas massacre, in which 37 people were killed.

Khomeini used violence and intimidation to silence Rushdie. Prosecutors in Northern Ireland merely fine and imprison those with whom they disagree.

Chief witness for the prosecution is Dr Raied Al-Wazzan, the former Executive Treasurer of the Belfast Islamic Centre who in January became embroiled in controversy when he said that Islamic State, which has carried out mass executions and forced millions of people to flee their homes, had been a positive force in Mosul, his home city in Iraq. 

As he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme: 

“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. My family is living there at the moment and that’s what they are telling me.”

The person leading the charge against a Christian pastor for speaking ill of the Islamic faith believes ISIS is creating a modern utopia. Offended yet?

Following a complaint filed by Al-Wazzan in June of last year, McConnell voluntarily gave himself over to be questioned by police. On free speech grounds, he declined an “informed warning” that would have avoided a prosecution.

In June, McConnell was informed he would be prosecuted under the 2003 Communications Act. In his response to the decision by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) to prosecute, he stated that he intended to fight the charges laid against him:

“I’m not taking it lying down. I am not going to be gagged. The police tried to shut me up and tell me what to preach. It’s ridiculous. I believe in freedom of speech. I’m going to keep on preaching the gospel.

“I have nothing against Muslims, I have never hated Muslims, I have never hated anyone. But I am against what Muslims believe. They have the right to say what they believe in and I have a right to say what I believe.”

In defiance of the PPS, McConnell opted to take a principled stand – not always easy to do. He could have accepted the “informed warning” offered to him and returned to the comforts of home, never again to grace the inside of a police station. 

He declined that offer to grovel for forgiveness certain in the knowledge that he would later be prosecuted for doing so. Faced with the inevitable, he has risen to the occasion, with good humour and generosity demonstrating exactly what kind of man he is. 

A devout Christian who is not so blinded by his beliefs that he would deny others the right to express an opposing belief. A strident free speech advocate who for all his religious fervour turns out to be more enlightened in his views than Northern Ireland’s supposedly enlightened liberal left, whose “progressive pieties” –  in the words of Suzanne Breen – don’t extend to defending an evangelical preacher with unfashionable opinions.

You might not agree with his views on Islam, but for standing by his principles McConnell is to be admired.

Update 16/12/15: Judgment has been reserved until January. Via the Belfast Telegraph:

Pastor McConnell Belfast Telegraph

Incidentally, there were few people supporting McConnell outside Laganside Courts today.

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