Islamophobia in Belfast?

The pastor of a Belfast church, James McConnell, is facing a possible six month sentence for making remarks on Islam during a sermon. Here is what he said:

“For there is one God. Think about that. For there is one God. But what God is [the Apostle] Paul referring to? What God is he talking about? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“The God who we worship and serve this evening is not Allah. The Muslim God, Allah, is a heathen deity. Allah is a cruel deity. Allah is a demon deity. A deity that this foolish government of ours … pays homage to, and subscribes financial inducements to curry their favor to keep them happy….

“While in Muslim lands Christians are persecuted for their faith; their homes burned, their churches destroyed, and hundreds of them literally have given their lives for Christ in martyrdom. A lovely young [Sudanese] woman by the name of Miriam, 27 years-of-age, because she has accepted Christ as her Savior, will be flogged publicly and hanged publicly. These fanatical worshippers are worshippers of the god called Allah. Ladies and gentlemen, that is a fact and it cannot be denied and it cannot be refuted.

“I know the time will come in this land … and in this nation to say such things will be an offense to the law. It would be reckoned erroneous, unpatriotic. But I am in good company, the company of [Protestant Reformers] Luther and Knox and Calvin and Tyndale and Latimer and Cranmer and Wesley and Spurgeon and such like him.

“The Muslim religion was created many hundreds of years after Christ. Mohammed, was born in 570. But Muslims believe that Islam is the true religion, dating back to Adam, and that the biblical Patriarchs were all Muslims, including Noah and Abraham and Moses, and even our Lord Jesus Christ.

“To judge by some of what I have heard in the past few months, you would think that Islam was little more than a variation of Christianity and Judaism. Not so. Islam’s ideas about God, about humanity, about salvation are vastly different from the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. Islam is heathen. Islam is satanic. Islam is a doctrine spawned in Hell.”

Having been offered an informal warning, which would not have led to a jail sentence, he refused it and now the police indicate that his remarks may lead to a custodial sentence. McConnell later told Police that it was not his intention to “arouse fear or stir up or incite hatred” against the Muslim community.

The  director of the Belfast Islamic Centre, Raied Al-Wazzan, lodged a complaint with the police and claimed it was a hate crime. He also made some very frank remarks about ISIS’s rule of Mosul in Iraq, which he subsequently withdrew. He claimed at the time that Mosul was, thanks to Islamic State, “the most peaceful city in the world”. Which, to be fair it would be, if it weren’t for the fact that the population lives in fear of being beheaded.

There are a couple of points to ponder from this.

Firstly, there is great difficulty in discussing Islam because it means different things depending on the context in which it is used. Even McConnell’s own lawyer seemed to fluff this when he spoke to the press. The lawyer said: “My client’s remarks weren’t addressed at individual Muslims but at Islam in generic terms.”

But what does this lawyer mean by ‘Islam in generic terms’? This is very imprecise language.

Perhaps the following explanation can help us understand the lawyer’s lack of precision: Islam is one word, but it means at least five different things. It means a spiritual tradition (of both Sunni and Shia – although there are other sects); it refers to cultural practice originating in Arabia (whether to do with dress code, the preparation of food, marriage, FGM, or anything else); it refers also to religious traditions, such as the need to ceremoniously wash before prayers, the frequency of prayers, and so on; it refers to the political theories of statecraft and world government that (political) Islam envisions, and the economic ideas that it proposes; and it is contextually conflated in modern discourse to suggest race relations.

Crucial in understanding this point is this distinction: when we talk about Christianity, we refer to a spiritual tradition, but we do not refer to Italian or American or Australian cultural practices. Neither do we refer to political ideas of governance, economics, and we most avowedly are not making racial claims. Our intention is purely to refer to the spiritual tradition and its symbolism.

Not so with Islam, and this is the source of much misunderstanding — as well as being the vehicle for much manipulation and exploitation by Islamists and leftists (as we’ll get to in a moment).

The argument is endlessly repeated (and rebutted) that to be critical of Islam is to be ‘racist’ — but what race would be talking about, since Islam spans the globe? There are Arab, Asian, American, Caucasian and African Muslims; there are converts and there are those born to Muslim parent(s). But there are also Arab Christians (although with Islamic State beheading them as quickly as it can, it’s hard to know for how much longer.) But, there is no longer any race that identifies exclusively with Islam — for obvious reasons.

This is important because all the respect and concessions we grant to religious freedom will automatically apply across all of the categories: a person can claim a legitimate right to pray; he can also promote cultural practices and hold supervise (even dangerous) political views about the legal system, and then claim that is part of his religious freedom. He can privilege subversive and even dangerous views by invoking the powerful ‘race card’, and there is nothing you can do to stop it, because if you do, you are a racist and guilty of a hate crime.

In the political commentary that McConnell provided, when he refers to the persecution of Christians in Muslim lands — how much of that is untrue? It is well documented, and even updated on a month-by-month basis, so it is there for all to see.

Secondly, a reaction to the second problem here comes from the constructed notion of Islamophobia. This is a highly strategic response and can be invoked at any discussion. It was created in the 1990s by the International Institute for Islamic Thought (linked closely with the Muslim Brotherhood) with the aim of placing Islamic religion, culture, religious tradition and race in a position of inviolability, safe from disparagement.

Rather than being straightforward discrimination (something we have a word and legal definition for), Islamophobia is the arriviste newcomer: it supersedes nationality and race, and it has very unpleasant origins. Claire Berlinski explains it well in this article. She interviews Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, an ex-member of the International Institute for Islamic Thought, who says of Islamophobia that it

“is nothing more than a thought-terminating cliché conceived in the bowels of Muslim think tanks for the purpose of beating down critics.”

“In an effort to silence critics of political Islam, advocates needed to come up with terminology that would enable them to portray themselves as victims. Muhammad said he was present when his then-allies, meeting at the offices of the International Institute for Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Northern Virginia years ago, coined the term “Islamophobia.”

“Muhammad said the Islamists decided to emulate the homosexual activists who used the term “homophobia” to silence critics. He said the group meeting at IIIT saw “Islamophobia” as a way to ‘beat up their critics’.”

It’s a very powerful term.

An example of its soft power can be seen in the recent case of Tahera Ahmed’s infamous United Airlines flight in which she claims that she was singled out as a Muslim and denied service (a Diet Coke) by a flight attendant. Her hashtag #IslamophobiaIsReal spanned the globe before her flight even landed (thanks to inflight WiFi). Such discriminatory behaviour sounds abhorrent, and it would indeed truly be, were it not that passengers on that flight who witnessed the episode tell a very different story. This brilliant article completely unpacks her story and the reactions of the airline suggest they too were aware of how the ‘Islamophobia’ card had been played and that the passenger was, in fact, misrepresenting the situation by lying about it.

Harder examples of this power can be seen in its effect after the cartoon massacres, such as Charlie Hebdo, and the subsequent and sweeping self-censorship seen by the media in an unprecedented way.

So to answer the earlier question of what race could be referring to when we refer to Islam, we need to unpack the term ‘Muslim Community’.

When we talk about non-native groups of people in a country, we usually do so on the basis of nationality or ethnicity, not creed. But the notion of a “Muslim Community” is neither nationality nor ethnicity, but a hybrid which serves to bind people of disparate races and cultural origins together, and gives them a common bond. This has the effect of giving culture, religious traditions and practice special privilege, granted on the basis of religious liberty and protected under race relations, using religious freedom as a pretext.

Generally speaking, there is a need for people to get along, of course, and genuine hate crimes directed against individuals must not be allowed to stand. But it would do everyone good to understand under the present legal system and climate that “Islam” with all its five connotations is beyond criticism in every possible sense. And that at present, whether we like it or not, political and theological commentary can and will be construed as hate crime — Islamophobia is a dynamic beast with many tentacles.

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