“What do you not trust those who are followers of Islam in doing? I’ll be quite honest. I wouldn’t trust them in terms of those who have been involved in terrorist activities. I don’t trust them if they are fully devoted to Sharia law. I wouldn’t trust them for spiritual guidance. Would I trust them to go down to the shops for me? Of course I would.”
If you live outside Northern Ireland you might not recognise these words, since the events surrounding their utterance have gone largely unreported by the UK media, and a timely bomb in Derry’s Everglades Hotel has served to eclipse the story, if that were needed. So, just in case you missed it, here in summary is what’s going on:
Quoted above are the words of Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, given in an interview to John Manley of the Irish News, in which Robinson made a show of support for a controversial preacher from Belfast’s Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle. In a sermon that was broadcast on the internet, Pastor James McConnell condemned Islam as a “heathen” and “satanic” religion, and a “doctrine spawned in Hell.” He also stated that he didn’t trust Muslims and that “Enoch Powell was a prophet,” referring to Powell’s famous 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
Violence against ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland is on the increase; according to one report there are two attacks per day, an increase of 43 per cent from 2013. Belfast is now being referred to as the ‘Hate Crime Capital’ of the UK. Given this context, it is easy to see Pastor McConnell’s words as irresponsible and inflammatory. However, more remarkable is the support offered to this supposed man of God by our First Minister, whose job it is to serve the interests of every citizen. Peter Robinson has attended Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in the past, and says that he will do so again. He is not the only one from his party, the DUP, to do so; notably Health Minister Edwin Poots is also a regular worshipper.
The pastor is reported to be under investigation by the PSNI for a potential hate crime, however, on the BBC’s Stephen Nolan show, aired on Wednesday (May 28), McConnell denied that he had yet been contacted by the police. On the same show he demonstrated a complete ignorance of Islam – for example calling Sharia law “Sharara law” – and he refused to accept that his words were irresponsible, or could be construed by some people as an incitement to violence. In fact, he appeared to be completely out of his depth on every point put to him by Dr. Khalid Anis of the Islamic Society of Britain. Despite being given the opportunity to retract and pour oil on troubled waters like a good Christian, the pastor clung doggedly to his position.
Now, let’s go back to the quote we began with. If David Cameron had come out with the kind of patronising, intolerant, condescending, stereotyping rhetoric that Peter Robinson had, you might imagine that his career as Prime Minister would be swiftly over. But our First Minister, perhaps after consultation with his advisers this time, had no such concerns and instead commenced a half-hearted damage limitation exercise. He almost apologised, saying in a statement that his words had been “misinterpreted,” and accepted an invitation to visit the Belfast Islamic Centre where he made an apology to three people behind closed doors.
On Friday, together with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Robinson met with the Turkish ambassador to discuss trade opportunities. Turkey is 99 per cent Muslim. I can’t help wondering how the conversation went: was there any awkwardness, or did Peter just pat the ambassador on the head and ask him to nip down the shops for some chocolates? I suppose we’ll never know. Criticism of Robinson’s support for McDonnell has come from many sectors of society. In particular, Muslim healthcare professionals including leading surgeons, have expressed their discomfort with Minister Poots’ attendance at McConnell’s church, some saying that they would be inclined to leave Northern Ireland, and others calling for the First Minister to resign. As I write, Peter Robinson hasn’t resigned.
There have been other political casualties: Hong Kong-born Alliance MLA Anna Lo broke down in tears during an interview as she described the vulnerability she feels every day and the constant racial abuse and attacks she suffers. She has decided to leave politics at the next election, and is seriously considering quitting the country altogether. Unsuccessful UUP local election candidate Colin Houston resigned from the party after being suspended following his haranguing defence of Pastor McConnell on the aforementioned Nolan show, where he shouted: “The Christians are starting to stand up; we’re not having it no [sic] more.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t clear what he and his brethren were not “having […] no more” of. Inexplicably for an Ulster Unionist, he also shouted at George Galloway to go “away back to Britain.” He’d only been in the party for three weeks.
From my summary of the week’s events it may seem as though we live in a sanctioned hunting ground for bigots, who are encouraged by some of our political and spiritual leaders to go out and ethnically cleanse their streets. But despite this pervasive ignorance and prejudice, there is still hope, and I want to finish on a positive note. On Thursday evening a call went out on social media for an ‘Emergency Anti-Racism Rally’ outside Belfast City Hall. I attended the rally, along with thousands of others, and it was heartening to see the support and solidarity for the people of Belfast and Northern Ireland. The fact that so many people came together at such short notice gives some indication of the strength of feeling about the issues of racism and sectarianism in our society. Anna Lo told us that she was going to stay in the country, and was rapturously applauded by all, regardless of their political views. I’m not from Northern Ireland myself; I’m a blow-in from across the water. But my adopted home of over 20 years is the most welcoming, creative, inspiring, and just-plain-brilliant place I’d ever want to live in. I love it here, and I’m not alone in that.
Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike
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