A storm in an evangelical teacup has prompted a police investigation, dragged Northern Ireland’s First Minister into international headlines and prompted a member of Northern Ireland’s political Assembly to consider leaving the country for good.
It all started when Pastor James McConnell, of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in North Belfast, addressed the case of Meriam Ibrahim, the young Christian woman sentenced to death for ‘apostasy’ (not following her father’s Muslim faith) and to a 100-lash flogging for ‘adultery’ (conceiving a child with her husband, for heaven’s sake!).
Unfortunately Pastor McConnell’s sermon had the effect of drawing attention away from Meriam’s plight and focusing it instead on alleged hate speech and Islamophobia. This was the offending part of his sermon:
“People say there are good Muslims in Britain — that may be so — but I don’t trust them,” he said. “Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell”
As a result the Police Service of Northern Ireland has launched an investigation to decide if McConnell should be charged with hate speech. The First Minister, Peter Robinson, who has attended the Metropolitan Tabernacle on occasion, defended the pastor as ‘a good man’ who is entitled to exercise his right to free speech. After that the row became global, featuring on news programmes all across the world. Then, right on cue, the usual critics of Christianity start pontificating about how evangelical Christians are hateful bigots etc.
Now, McConnell’s words were certainly ill-chosen and inflammatory. Having grown up in Belfast during the dark days of the Troubles I recognise the phrase “I don’t trust them” as being a standard part of any sectarian rant.
There’s just one problem with this rather predictable scenario. James McConnell’s words were certainly intemperate, but they are fairly tame when you compare them to what some of today’s atheist standard bearers have to say about Islam. For example:
“I would never regard Islam with anything but horror and fear because it is fundamentally committed to conquering the world for Islam.” (Antony Flew)
“All this talk of people who burn the Koran and nothing about the people who reacted in such a stupid way. We are always blaming the victim and not holding them — not most Muslims, but at least a large part of Muslim culture that doesn’t condemn their people… There is one religion in the world that kills you when you disagree with them and they say ‘look, we are a religion of peace and if you disagree we’ll f**king cut your head off, and nobody calls them on it — there are very few people that will call them on it. It’s like if Dad is a violent drunk and beats his kids, you don’t blame the kid because he set Dad off. You blame Dad because he’s a violent drunk.” (Bill Maher)
“Islam in its origins is just as shady and approximate as those from which it took its borrowings. It makes immense claims for itself, invokes prostrate submission or “surrender” as a maxim to its adherents, and demands deference and respect from nonbelievers into the bargain. There is nothing—absolutely nothing—in its teachings that can even begin to justify such arrogance and presumption.” (Christopher Hitchens)
“I’m pessimistic about the Islamic world. I regard Islam as one of the great evils in the world, and I fear that we have a very difficult struggle there.” (Richard Dawkins)
So, how come we have outpourings of outrage at a pastor’s comments yet no-one raises an eyebrow when the standard bearers of atheist philosophy make statements that are every bit as extreme about Islam? Why aren’t the PSNI trawling through bookshops in order to charge Dawkins and his mates with hate speech? More than a whiff of hypocrisy here I think.
Most western countries style themselves as secular democracies. I have no problem with that – but we need to understand what secularism means. Secularism is not the exclusion of religion from society – rather it is where religious groups are treated just like everybody else. No special privileges, but no special discrimination or restrictions either. True secularism should not mean that atheists get a free pass to criticise Islam whereas any religious person who does so gets hammered.
I see that McConnell has now apologised for his comments. Don’t hold your breath waiting for Maher or Dawkins to do the same.