Pastor McConnell has recently hit the headlines following his bigoted remarks about British Muslims. Although it’s important to defend the right to criticise all ideas freely, and not allow religion special privileges, it is difficult to see how one could easily deal fairly with the followers of an ideology one thinks metaphysically evil:
Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell
And indeed McConnell went on to say:
“Now people say there are good Muslims in Britain – that may be so – but I don’t trust them,” he said.
One can admittedly find many other examples of preachers saying hateful things about particular groups, and the Pope has fairly routinely been condemned as the Antichrist by some Ulster Protestants.
But what is particularly concerning about this case is the way that Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson came to Pastor McConnell’s defence.
Asked about the sermon, Mr Robinson, who has attended the same church in the past, insisted the pastor does not have “an ounce of hatred in his bones” and claimed it is the “duty of any Christian preacher to denounce a false doctrine”.
Mr Robinson, of the Democratic Unionist Party, went on to say he wouldn’t trust Muslims who were involved in “terrorist activities” or those “fully devoted to Sharia law” for spiritual advice either, but would trust them to “go down the shops for me” and “give me the right change”
It’s not that there is anything wrong with being opposed to extremists, of either the violent or non-violent kind, but Peter Robinson seemed not even to acknowledge the slur, not just against a religion/ideology, but against a whole community. You can denounce a ‘false doctrine’ (a different religion, or just a different sect) without demonising its followers.
McConnell has been defended still more robustly by the DUP’s Sammy Wilson:
The preachers of liberalism and tolerance suddenly revealed that their tolerance does not extend to anyone from the Christian faith who dares comment on public issues.
Ironically this is the mirror image of some responses to criticisms of intolerant or hateful comments by Muslims – the complaint that Muslims are not allowed to comment on public issues without being shouted down. Like such apologists, Wilson glosses over the most controversial elements of McConnell’s sermon, wrongly implying that he has been attacked simply for criticising extremism and the persecution of Christians.
Peter Robinson has since issued a clarifying statement in which he highlights the importance of freedom of speech.
I strongly believe that Pastor James McConnell has the right to freedom of speech. I will defend his right just as I defend the right of others to express views with which I disagree. People have the right to express their differing views and indeed the essence of democracy is the ability to do so in a way that is free from fear and intimidation.
But you can support someone’s freedom of speech without insisting, as Robinson did originally, that they don’t have an ounce of hate in their bones.
These events were one factor behind the recent resignation of Anna Lo, the Chinese born Alliance politician. However representatives from Belfast’s Muslim community have accepted the FM’s apology.