You might have heard about the case of Pastor James McConnell of Whitewall Tabernacle in the United Kingdom who recently landed in hot water with authorities when a sermon of his was publicized in which he described Islam as “satanic” and “the spawn of the devil,” among other things.
Such speech was viewed as borderline incitement to violence, particularly in a context in which Muslims have increasingly been victims of hate crimes. However, some Muslims are prepared to step up to the Pastor’s defense, noting that his message wasn’t violent at all.
Dr. Muhammad Al-Hussaini, a Senior Fellow in Islamic Studies at the Westminster Institute, expressed serious concerns about the prosecution of Pastor McConnell. Certainly, religious leaders have a moral obligation to temper their rhetoric and avoid incitement, but what troubles Al-Hussaini is that McConnell never once called for violence. He says:
While those of us who hold clerical office as Christian pastors and priests, Jewish rabbis or Muslim imams, should rightly have due care and regard to the leadership role we exercise when we make public speeches, nevertheless our foremost duty remains to express theological ideas in good conscience before God.
For these reasons, 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 subject to criminal proceedings, when at no time have any of the statements he has made incited to physical harm or hatred against anyone.
Indeed, one of the challenges of our time is to positively changes hearts and minds about Islam, and such change doesn’t come about through fines, punishments, and coercion.
In fact, Pastor McConnell only recently visited the home of two Pakistani men who had been the victims of a flagrant anti-Muslim hate crime. He showed his solidarity with the victims and his commitment against prejudice-based violence by saying:
No justification for such an attack on any individual or their home whatever their religion.
So, even though McConnell’s fiery anti-Islam sermon was unwise and based in misunderstanding, Dr. Al-Hussaini is willing to go so far as to join him in prison should he be convicted:
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 and, in that spirit, I further undertake that if Pastor McConnell is convicted and sent to prison, I shall go to prison with him.
Just another great example of a Muslim leader responding to inflammatory proselytizing with humility, mercy, and peace, as the Quran says:
The servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth in humility and when the ignorant address them, they say words of peace. (25:63)
If we all acted this way, then we just might consign anti-Muslim prejudice to the dustbin of history. That’s a jihad worth fighting for, don’t you think?