I uphold the moral right of pastor McConnell and myself to disagree about doctrine
by Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini
One of my saddest moments in recent months was being told of the passing of the brilliant traditional singer, Mick Quinn of Mullaghbawn.
Being an amateur fiddle player and lover of sean-nos song, I had the honour to meet Mick at a singers' festival in Sligo last year and to share with him my rendering of the The Boys of Mullaghbawn, taught to me by the excellent songster, Kathleen O'Sullivan.
The Boys of Mullaghbawn tells the sorrowful tale of harsh and capricious judicial process and punishment by transportation, and this song has thus been much in my head these past days in hearing of the extraordinary decision to prosecute Pastor James McConnell on account of polemical comments by him concerning Islamic religious belief, in a manner which I believe is quite contrary to our country's tradition of freedom of expression.
As an imam of the Islamic faith, I have had the honour to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with brave Christian clergy colleagues, such as Dr Patrick Sookhdeo of the Barnabas Fund, who have spoken out tirelessly about the heinous persecution of Christian and other minorities in Muslim states.
It is of utmost concern that, in this country, we uphold the freedom to discuss, debate and critique religious ideas and beliefs - restricting only speech which incites physical violence.
The United Kingdom and Ireland are signatories both to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which guarantee "the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion" (Article 18) and "the right to freedom of opinion and expression" (Article 19).
The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 upholds the same freedom of expression stating that "Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents" (Schedule 29 J).
Where it pertains to Pastor McConnell's sermons about other Churches and faiths, I hear the hurt caused in the past to some Catholics and now some Muslims.
But a free and democratic society enters into severe peril when it starts to confound what we perhaps ought or ought not to say, with what in law we are allowed to, or not allowed to say.
I strongly uphold the moral right of Pastor McConnell and myself, as Christian and Muslim, to disagree about matters of doctrine and belief and, further, I express my deep dismay that my fellow citizen is being subjected to criminal proceedings, when at no time have any of the statements he has made incited to physical harm against anyone.
I wish to record my deep concern at the criminalising of theological disagreement, at an historical juncture when our society should be fostering better quality disagreement and further undertake that if Pastor McConnell is convicted and imprisoned, I shall go to prison with him.
Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini is Senior Fellow in Islamic Studies at the Westminster Institute
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