On January 6, 2016, the Revd James McConnell was acquitted of charges concerning improper use of a public electronic communications network and causing a ‘grossly offensive’ message to be sent via said network.

As Melanie McDonagh, a Catholic columnist for The Spectator put it, the charges were rather ‘obscure’.

In June 2015, the BBC reported that someone filed a complaint about an Internet broadcast of one of McConnell’s sermons in which he referred to Islam as being ‘heathen’ and ‘satanic’ in May 2014.

McConnell, 78, preaches at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast. The Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service’s procedure is to issue an ‘informed warning’ which, whilst not a conviction, remains on or creates a criminal record and holds for 12 months afterwards. The Public Prosecution Service takes anyone refusing an informed warning to court.

Although Pastor McConnell apologised publicly for his remarks, he refused the warning and ended up in court. His three-day trial took place in December 2015.

Possibly because he had no criminal record before this incident, McConnell’s trial had jovial aspects and lighter moments with Irish banter exchanged between the pastor’s legal team and the presiding magistrate.

McConnell said at the trial that the first he knew of the charge was when a reporter from the BBC rang him. Furthermore, the judge told the court that McConnell had also insulted Henry VIII, calling him an ‘auld reprobate’.

Two of the pastor’s character witnesses were a Catholic priest, the Revd Pat McCafferty, and an imam, Muhammad Al-Hussaini. Although the latter was not called on to testify, he travelled to Belfast to support McConnell in a case he believes never should have seen the light of day.

Dr Al-Hussaini, a senior fellow in Islamic Studies at the Westminster Institute in London, told the Belfast Telegraph:

… this should take place in civic society, rather than within the courtroom. “While there is a public conversation to be had now about how religious leaders should best give witness to their beliefs with truthfulness and at the same time ‘always with gentleness and respect’ as Scripture commands, this is a discussion for theologians and ordinary citizens in civil society, and not the judiciary,” he said. “In a free society people take exception to all kinds of things in cinema, online or other media but, other than material which incites to physical violence, I hope the Northern Ireland PPS will give careful consideration before again entering into vexed questions about what is ‘grossly offensive’ enough to prosecute.”

I suspect that Al-Hussaini is an Ismaili (Shia, Aga Khan leader) Muslim because he enjoys Western society. The Irish Times reported in 2015 that he is one of the sean nós singers at the London Irish Centre. He also plays the fiddle.

He told The Irish Times that the London Irish Centre is his ‘safe space’. He explained that, after the Charlie Hebdo attack on January 7, 2015, he came under severe abuse for opposing extremism and, among other things, received faeces-smeared letters.

Of course, he is equally criticised for loving music, which fundamentalist Muslims say goes against the Koran.

Al-Hussaini reminds me of the Muslims I knew in the 1970s — enlightened, interesting and engaging. I wish there were more of them today, especially in Britain. Even he makes the observation that the strains of Islam practised here are deeply fundamentalist.

On extremism, he had this to say to The Irish Times:

“Extremism seeks to abolish the arts. Isis ban coloured pencils because it is a form of ideological mind-control which the arts frees one from. Arts promote a sense of humanity and expression that is not necessarily constrained by a literalist reading of scripture,” he says.

“So it is in the interests of those who have that particular agenda to sit upon expressions of art, even if they are traditionalist expressions of culture.” In any event, song and poetry is wedded into Arabic culture, “long epic poems, our equivalent of the Odyssey and the Aeneid, that were sung around the Bedouin camp fire.

“People still have the whole of these poems in their heads. There are poetry recitation competitions all over the Gulf. You can become a millionaire from winning one of these, they are so highly valued.”

More power to this imam’s voice — in his lecturing and his singing.

May Pastor McConnell be blessed with a peaceful retirement and provide good counsel to younger ministers and the congregation at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle.

I notice that his acquittal took place on Epiphany. Wise judgement prevailed.