Why should McConnell trust Muslim leaders when I don’t?

Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini, an Imam from London who was due to be called as a witness for Pastor James McConnell, right, outside the court after the pastor's trial in December 2015.' Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini, an Imam from London who was due to be called as a witness for Pastor James McConnell, right, outside the court after the pastor's trial in December 2015.' Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

I returned from Belfast in December from the trial of Pastor James McConnell, the preacher who described Islam as “satanic” and was prosecuted for stating he wouldn’t trust Muslims.

I got home to find I’d newly been blacklisted as anti-Muslim by one lobbying database on account of an article I had published in ‘The Irish Times’ that week in support of the academic freedom of Pastor McConnell and myself, as Christian and Muslim, to disagree about theological ideas.

My name as a Muslim academic and clergyman therefore now stands alongside that of far-right terrorist, Anders Breivik, the British National Party, Le Pen’s Front National and various other Muslim-hating political groups.

It does so because some self-appointed, white, liberal thought-vigilantes who are not themselves Muslim, nor from my ancient Muslim family heritage, nor having any theological training in Islamic Studies and its schools of thought, have decided that in supporting the pastor’s freedom of speech, I’m the very first imam who is apparently now also an “Islamophobe”.

I wrote to these cosy white folks asking for a conversation with me person-to-person, to consider the arrogance with which such pigeon-holing of another human being disregards my lifelong lefty politics and campaigning with other clergy on anti-war causes, global poverty, corporate tax evasion by multinationals, justice for asylum seekers, sexual abuse in churches and other faiths.

But so far, stony silence.

This extra-judicial sentencing naturally evoked memories of the coldness of Laganside Magistrates Court, where I sat with the comforting hand on my shoulder of Patrick McCafferty, a gentle-hearted Catholic priest whose religion had also been strongly critiqued by James McConnell, and who had responded to hurtful comment as the man of God he is, with tea, honest doctrinal disagreement and the nurturing of a twenty-year Catholic-Protestant friendship with the pastor.

Together, Paddy and I watched in dismay as an elderly man of my father’s age and outlook (though my dad is even more stubborn than Jim) was dissected like the cadaver we cut up at Medical School, his words anatomised with the scalpel of prosecutors and aggravated by slick interviewers in the exhibited TV recordings.

James McConnell floundered as it was insisted he find words – the right words – to explain properly his honest fear of a hydra-headed phenomenon of Islamist ideology when those of us who work as full-time experts in the field have failed yet to find those words.

Here, flesh, blood and heartfelt candour met the steel, stone and artful sophistry of the criminal justice system, and how I saw in that moment the scornful face of Pontius Pilate looking upon James McConnell’s rude words and sneering, “Quid est veritas? What is truth?”.

Well actually, Mr Pilate, the truth is that at exactly the time as we were sitting in the aseptic calm of that court, across the water, the prime minister was announcing in parliament the release of the government’s Muslim Brotherhood Review, which states, “For some years the Muslim Brotherhood shaped the new Islamic Society of Britain (ISB), dominated the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and played an important role in establishing and then running the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB)”.

In other words, the very same organisations whose representatives and affiliates had come on the BBC to decry James McConnell’s comments were being addressed by Mr Cameron in terms: “Muslim Brotherhood-associated and influenced groups in the UK have at times had a significant influence on national organisations which have claimed to represent Muslim communities (and on that basis have had a dialogue with Government) … But they have also sometimes characterised the UK as fundamentally hostile to Muslim faith and identity; and expressed support for terrorist attacks conducted by Hamas”.

When I hear Jim McConnell preaching, I hear across the ages the voice of John Knox, a brash Highland Calvinism, a Northern Irish homiletics which is far removed from the careful and anodyne liberal high churchmanship of Northern London.

In fact, if I might say, Jim McConnell’s style is actually extraordinarily “Islamic” – in Court I reflected how he could be standing in a pulpit in Cairo.

It is expository preaching, grounded deeply in citations from scripture, it is didactic preaching with his natural command of pedagogy, it is apologetic in its defence of his gospel, and it is polemic in its frank critique of the doctrines of others.

It is rudely and shamelessly truth-seeking and truth-speaking and, while it may offend the sympathies of liberal Church of England bishops, it is entirely familiar and understood by Muslims, African Pentecostals and many other non-white, non-Western, non-wealthy believers across the world.

Hence it offends me that no-one has understood that Muslims who regularly hear the sermons at Friday prayers will have a far higher tolerance for such hard and honest polemics than Middle England Anglicans.

I have seen the diametric opposite of McConnell artless candour in the religious politicians of the interfaith public relations industry, the forked tongued craft of saying nice things you don’t really mean to people you don’t really like.

Thus, each terrorist outrage is followed endlessly by talking heads on “Newsnight” rehearsing bland dictums about their “religion of peace” and that more taxpayers’ money be spent on capacity building Muslim leadership – in a perpetual violence-apologist-violence cycle.

I would ask therefore when there is a cognitive dissonance in the minds of millions of British people between what these self-appointed Muslim politicians claim about their organisations and what their overseas-affiliated Islamist chapters then go on to do, over and over again, why should James McConnell be compelled by law to trust the double discourse of Muslim leaders when I don’t?

• Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini is Senior Fellow in Islamic Studies at the Westminster Institute (Twitter: @MYAlHussaini)