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If you're for free speech, speak up for Pastor McConnell


Pastor James McConnell

Pastor James McConnell

Pastor James McConnell

On the face of it, you couldn't imagine two more different people than Maryam Namazie and Pastor Jim McConnell. One is a secular activist and human rights campaigner who fled Iran in 1980 after the revolution. The other is an elderly Pentecostal preacher, recently retired after 57 years of ministry. But they share the dubious distinction of being silenced for their views on Islam.

The students' union at Warwick University tried to ban Namazie from speaking at an event organised by a college humanist group, on the grounds that her speech could "incite hatred" of Muslim students. She was planning to talk about apostasy, blasphemy and nudity in the age of Isis. But the union said that "after researching both [Namazie] and her organisation, a number of flags have been raised. We have a duty of care to conduct a risk assessment for each speaker who wishes to come to campus".

Namazie was outraged. "They're basically labelling me a racist and an extremist for speaking out against Islam and Islamism," she said. "If anyone is inciting hatred, it's the Islamists who are threatening people like me just for deciding we want to be atheist, just because we don't want to toe the line."

After a huge outcry, including strong criticism from the likes of physicist Professor Brian Cox and science writer Ben Goldacre, the union reversed its decision. In an unseemly flurry of excuse-making and implausible denials, it says that Namazie will now be permitted to speak. Damned decent of them to tolerate the dangerous words of an infidel, eh? I hope the students can cope.

Meanwhile, back in God-fearing Ulster, Pastor McConnell is on trial for describing Islam as "heathen", "satanic" and "a doctrine spawned in hell". If convicted, he faces up to six months in jail.

When McConnell (below) first made those comments, I condemned them. Against the backdrop of a sharp rise in racist attacks, I said that the pastor's words fed intolerance, fanned the flames of suspicion and reinforced the insular notion of "us" and "them". I still think that. But what I should also have said was that Jim McConnell has the right to hold those views - however extreme others may think them - and to state them publicly, without the threat of imprisonment.

If you believe in Maryam Namazie's right to criticise Islam - and I do - then you believe in Jim McConnell's right to criticise Islam. And vice versa. I don't imagine Namazie would use the pastor's lurid language, and as an ex-Muslim she doesn't speak from the same perspective, but the principle is the same.

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Last week, I participated in a debate as part of the Belfast Comedy Festival. The question was whether we are in danger of limiting the right of free expression in favour of political correctness. Several people, including Les Allamby, chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Right Commission, spoke out in defence of political correctness, saying that it should be synonymous with respect.

If that's all that the term meant, then I would be happy to sign up. But the truth is that political correctness is no longer - if it ever was - about promoting respect for others. Rather, it's rapidly being turned into a weapon of intolerance to silence those whose views or actions don't chime with a liberal-fascist agenda. This isn't about protecting the vulnerable and the marginalised. It's not about "duty of care". In fact, it's censorship masquerading as enlightenment. If in doubt, ban it: that's the prevailing credo.

And frighteningly, it's the young who seem most keen to wield the weapon. I laughed when I heard student leaders in Norwich had banned sombreros from a freshers' fair because anyone other than a Mexican wearing a sombrero represented "cultural appropriation" and was therefore offensively racist. But it wasn't really funny, because it's the same dumb logic of 'nobody-must-be-offended' which led to the attempt to exclude Maryam Namazie from Warwick.

Here's the thing, if you truly believe in free speech, it's not just about supporting the rights of people you happen to agree with - that's called selective tolerance, and it's the worst sort of smug hypocrisy.

So if secularists or humanists are truly committed to freedom of expression, let's hear them speak up for Pastor McConnell. Likewise, if McConnell's defenders really believe in the right to speak your mind regardless of other people's religious sensibilities, then let them raise their voices in support of the militant atheist Maryam Namazie.

Anything else is meaningless cant.

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