I spent a lot of yesterday gawking at my phone/computer and gasping as our wee country struggled to get it together and ended the day with a very mixed tone. I asked how people were feeling on Twitter. Here are some responses.

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To back-track: Pastor James McConnell from Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast preached a sermon two Sundays ago that has split Northern Ireland. In it, he said that Islam was “heathen and satanic” and a “doctrine spawned in hell.” He said that although he would ‘love’ Muslims who came to his church, he did not trust “them”.

Various politicians have voiced support – Health Minister Edwin Poots, Sammy Wilson MLA, and over the past few days First Minister Peter Robinson has weighed in in support of Pastor McConnell’s ‘right to free speech’ and mistrust of Muslims – but, rest assured, Robinson, would in fact trust them to go to the shops for him.

A few comments on McConnell’s viewpoint and what others, including the First Minister, are backing:

To say that because of the actions of Islamic extremists, no Muslims are to be trusted is a logical fallacy. I was on the train yesterday and it was late: I do not derive from that that all Translink services are tardy. It didn’t rain when I visited Hawaii: does that mean that it never does?

It is a disgrace that we in Northern Ireland have still not learned to generalise and stereotype.

There is a very obvious lack of knowledge on display here on behalf of those who are expressing such strong opinions about Islam and Muslims. On Wednesday  Nolan show, McConnell constantly referred to Sharia Law as ‘Sharara’. He also spoke of ‘Islam countries’. A caller on Nolan’s radio show the previous day was angered at having seen a woman wearing a hijab, stating that it was against the British constitution. What, now?

So language can be reflective of our ignorance. It is also reflective of our attitude – ‘them’, ‘those ones’, ‘that community’. WHO are we talking about? Can we name ‘them’? Have we met ‘them’? What makes ‘them’…’them’?

We love that word, ‘them’. Women, LGBT people, Muslims, Polish people, Catholics, disabled people, Protestants. ‘Them’.

Back to our story, though – the message is also inconsistent. Those who are speaking out against Muslims (let’s be clear here: not about Islam. Let’s have a conversation about religion and the things we might disagree with, sometime. But we’re still in the playground here, picking on each other and robbing each other of our personhood.) are clear about approaching the issue from what they believe to be a Christian standpoint. They say they would welcome Muslims into their churches, but in the same breath cast nets of mistrust and blatant criminalisation in a xenophobia attitude of ‘better than you’. Just as not all Muslims interpret Sharia Law in the same way, not all Christians hold the same beliefs: but I do not find this speech loving in the way that Christians are called to be.

What is on display here is a lack of understanding of other cultures, and a reluctance or refusal to embrace them. I wrote about language reflecting attitude – it can also lead it. We need to acknowledge that the words we are hearing can in fact lead to action – and that action is dangerous. Hate crime against ethnic minorities or whoever ‘the other’ is is something we deal with in Northern Ireland.

MLA Anna Lo brought it home yesterday when she spoke of the feeling of vulnerability she lives with as a member of an ethnic minority community in Northern Ireland. She spoke out in disgust at McConnell’s comments and at the backing he received from Robinson, a colleague of Lo’s. She commented in the media several times, the last time to say that she would be leaving Northern Irish politics. An active agent for change, this is a significant loss for NI: for someone who has had a great career and spent 40 years in the country to consider leaving and indeed leave public life because of how vulnerable she feels is a tragedy.

And this is where it gets real: racism and xenophobia exist in Northern Ireland, and if we look at human history, speech leads to action. The words we speak infuse our culture and shape our future. And while Peter Robinson can sit in an interview and say that things are being blown out of proportion, the fact is that they aren’t: if hate crime against minority communities is real, then this is a problem and McConnell’s words – and those like them – are making it worse.

Robinson could sit and ask for perspective because he is in a place of privilege – as is McConnell. He talks of welcoming Muslims into his congregation as long as they play by his rules, as long as they come into his space. Robinson is not a victim of racism. Even Anna Lo, who has been a victim of hate crime, is in a position of relative privilege. She has a voice and has received support: what about the Romanians who woke to their houses covered in spraypainted racist rhetoric in South Belfast, who didn’t have a chance to speak and just left NI with fear of what might happen next?

Anna Lo was visibly upset yesterday in a BBC interview – perhaps because of her own experience; but, knowing her, more because of the pain she knows to live in minority communities in NI. And so rather than using privilege to talk people down, to make light of serious issues, to play games – let’s use it to promote change.

Maya Angelou passed away a few days ago: she was another hero of mine. She said so many great things. A simple but profound instruction she left was this:

“If you don’t like something, change it.”

And just as we may disagree with Pastor McConnell and others’ generalisation of a certain group of people, we need to not generalise about Northern Ireland or each other. The country is not ‘full’ of bigots or racists. We are not all anti anyone who is of a different political stance, nationality or religion. This isn’t a hopeless place. Northern Ireland is full of people who inspire change, in big things but most often in the little things – in building a diverse community, in living with integrity, in learning about ‘the other’, in accepting ‘the other’…in realising ‘the other’ is actually ‘me’.

A practical way to promote change: an emergency rally against racism has been organised for tomorrow (Saturday) at noon in Belfast, in front of City Hall.

PS: this post isn’t intended to be degrading of anyone’s personhood, so correct me if it is. I do and believe I have the right to disagree with people’s words or actions, but if we are to truly uphold each other’s humanity, we cannot tear each other’s personhood apart.


  1. Its a very tricky issue.

    If I, as a christian were at Whitewell listening to that sermon, I would be very annoyed at how this man was ‘leading’ his church. I would have serious questions about the benefit of this section of the sermon had for his flock’s spiritual well-being. Is there a spate of north Belfast christians being converted to Islam that I don’t know about? A) it isn’t right to mistrust such a large people group B) No benefit came from preaching it.

    Moving on – I feel in NI, whilst we react to things we feel strongly about – we far too often OVERreact. I’m not saying anyone’s anger is unjustified, but this is what i mean by OVERreact – we go to far in the other polar direction that we lose the run of ourselves.

    Examples –
    Misquotes : Mcconnel said we shouldn’t trust Muslims
    Real Quote : McConnel said that HE didn’t trust muslims. He instructed nobody.
    Misquote : Robinson said he ‘ONLY trusted them to go to the shops’
    True quote : after stating areas in which he wouldn’t trust Muslims such as spiritual guidance, he then attempted to clarify that he would trust them for other things. His examples PERHAPS gave an impression of menial tasks.

    These misquotes may be inferred, but lets keep our integrity and let the infer-ration be viewed by individuals. It does our counter argument no good if we are seen to be exaggerating or putting words in people’s mouths.

    Has anyone else noticed any irony in the whole media storm?

    Anyone else noticed comments like
    ‘All faith is stupid anyway!’ or ‘This country is in the dark ages’.

    I thought generalisation was the very thing we were outraged by here? I’m glad Gemma picked up on this also!

    Lets talk about freedom of speech. In believing that one’s religion is correct – you (generally) believe that others are wrong. If McConnell wants to get up in church and say Islam is wrong – that’s not a problem. You may not like it, but its not unexpected and its not illegal. What about his language though? Hateful. And for me personally – it’s a sign of a preacher who has gone too far away from his task of spiritually feeding and into the dangerous waters of sensationalist performance and emotional manipulation through being visibly ‘fired up’. Again though – I ask – who at Whitewell has a closer walk with the Lord as a result of McConnel saying Islam is heathen and it’s doctrine was spawned in hell? WHY WHY WHY?

    I’ve heard people on Twitter both claim that Anna Lo has done more for reducing hate crime than anyone else. Others quite clearly believe that McConnells comments will increase hate crime. I have to say – I’m not sure on either. I believe the people who spray graffiti and throw bricks at windows don’t pay much head to either politicians or clergy. Its sad, and should not be acceptable in any way. If there does prove to be an increase in hate crime you would have to concede that these thugs most likely didn’t hear these words at Whitewell that Sunday, but rather through the media. Does the media ever have to ask itself if a story is helpful or not? Surely they have a duty to protect society? Surely they don’t thrive on sensationalist stories do they? hmmmmm…

    In summary i guess what I’m saying is, McConnell is an idiot, and as a christian I’ve serious doubts over his leadership of my brothers and sisters in Christ – but he broke no laws, and our country is probably in a worse situation now since it was brought to a wider audience.

    If we are to condemn everyone with an extreme view – then who decides which view is extreme. Some would say that believing human foetuses are less important than human feelings and aspirations is an extreme view.

    Here’s a video worth a watch. I’m not posting this video to be inflammatory – only seeking to restore some balance for those unimpressed by NI and/or Christians. But please take a look at this in Luton 2012 – watch until 1:30 at least. Extreme views exist worldwide people. Anna Lo will travel far and wide until she finds somewhere that doesn’t upset her at least sometimes. A magical place where the entire population thinks like her is just fictional.

    Sorry for my ramblings! Thanks for reading.

  2. Couldn’t help come across your blog G, usually do look out for it to be honest, missed past couple.

    As a former member with a position in Whitewell, I feel I can make fairer case than most in relation to the character of Pastor McConnell and his comments.

    After finding and reading nearly everything I can find on the past events over the past 2 weeks I have come to a really unique conclusion. All of us are practising double standards, me included.
    For example we have members of the community up in arms about stereotyping a group of people and they have a fair point, to “not trust” any Muslim whatsoever is not right by any stretch of the imagination. However neither is that statement hate crime or in any way a form of racism. As it was pointed out by Clive, this was a man opinion, an opinion he has a right to state, whether it be right or wrong. However as I agree we must not stereotype an entire group of people, I would also claim it’s wrong to stereotype a man based on a 3 minute video clip. As we would say we look at a group of people as a whole and not individuals, surely we must offer Pastor McConnell the same luxury? Should we not judge him on his ministry as a whole? Do we take into consideration that the church he pastors funds two works in Africa, one in Ethiopia which feeds, teaches and medically aids around 600 kids a day, most of which are children of Muslim families. The other work is Kenya, a work I have visited three times and plan to again this October which aids with the disabled. What about the thousands of people he has led to Christ over the years? Whitewell has around 20-30 disabled people attend church every Sunday night, brought via church buses, they are given supper afterwards, a ministry I had the privilege of serving in for 5 years. Are we to ignore all of the good of a man’s ministry, and then form an opinion on him based on a 3 minute video clip and an excuse for a debate on Wednesday night? Surely we are committing the same crime of stereotyping which we are so up in arms against? It must be a case of double standards.

    May I point out I do not agree with any statement from anybody labelling an entire group of people as untrustworthy. Islam is a religion, not a race. So let’s clear that issue up very quickly.

    If we consider the latter part of the video clip, let us consider that Islam place Jesus Christ as a prophet and nothing more. As a Christian I for one believe we must speak out against any religion that demotes Jesus Christ from his place as head of the church and the son of God. Any religion which does this is in fact a false doctrine or as Paul puts it “A doctrine of devils” aimed to take people away from Christ. I find Pastor McConnell’s comments about this religion as “heathen” and “spawned in hell” to be fine in terms on what I believe as a Christian. I would accept the same language to be used of ANY religion or anti-religion such as atheism that demotes Jesus Christ from his true position. It must be a lie from the enemy, the deceiver or any other term you want to use to describe him.

    I do believe that all Christian messages must be delivered in love. I can understand from the video clips that people do not see love in that and I can accept that point from people using that argument, again I bring up the point of “stereotyping” as we are then putting the label of “bigot” and a man preaching “hatred” based on several minutes of footage. As a person who personally knows the Pastor I for one can first hand say that there an enormous amount of love for Jesus Christ and the people of this world in his heart. I can only speak from personal experience and even meeting him for coffee this past Wednesday morning to talk about issues I had with the whole ordeal, I found a loving, genuine and honest man who at times admitted to be feeling the pressure and cautious about what the future holds. Although I also seen a great strength and determination to come through this and continue pointing people to Jesus Christ. One such convert a few short weeks ago was one of my best friends. Praise God for that! The pastor of the church I am now attending I recently found out was saved in Whitewell, as was another pastor I served in work on Friday looking roofing felt now pastoring Armagh. In no way am I trying to deflect or build a case of “leave this man alone”, I just feel that there is a lot this man has contributed to Christianity in Ulster, which is good and worthwhile and worth standing up for. What he has contributed to me as a Christian has been invaluable.

    When on the Nolan show the Pastor did mention other “Islam countries” and immediately got shot down by a man screaming about being a British Muslim whenever that was never even called into question. If the Pastor was allowed to bring up the other “Islamic countries” we could have heard about the work of Open Doors, brothers and sisters dying for their faith at the hands of Islamic followers around the world. When making his statements I do believe the Pastor should have been clearer and mentioned extremists rather than Islamic followers as a whole.

    Regardless to what anybody can say, especially in Mainland UK there is a vast increase of violence and extreme Islamic activity. Let’s go back to the 7/7 bombings, Drummer Lee Rigby as two major examples. The video Clive shared about Luton is alarming also! I have a friend who recently returned home from playing professional football for Hull, Brighton and Bradford and he mentioned it being unsafe to go into areas of Bradford because he was white. I am not saying this is all Islam’s fault, but these are major issues which need to be tackled and faced. I challenge anybody reading this to check YouTube for Sharia Law UK or Sharia Law London and you will see first-hand what real racist things are happening in our country. Again I am pointing out extreme cases; please don’t infer that I am stating all Islamic followers in Mainland UK are running around going crazy.

    It is a sad day for a country when a Politian feels the need to retire/resign over racism. Racists were around before Pastors comments and Robinsons backing and they will continue to be so irrespective of the comments. Both men have publicly denounced violence and racism and made their point in regards to racism. As previously stated above an attack on the Islamic faith is not a racist issue, Islam is not a race.

    Your comment about “them” Gemma, was likely the best thing I have read on this whole ordeal from the day it broke until now. I have noticed that issue in my own life even in relation to such things like the American car washes, “them guys that do the car wash” for a random example. I know people who know me, will know I mean no harm in it, but as you pointed out, it’s the terminology which is a major factor here, I want to thank you for bringing that point up.

    Clive when responding to your blog Gemma, made some excellent points in relation to media and people even listening to clergy or politicians who are planning or committing crimes etc. I think to call Pastor McConnell and idiot and claim you have doubts about how he leads the people of God who come to him is a little harsh considering you have never sat under the man’s ministry. Gemma you know me somewhat on a personal level and not trying to be arrogant here or anything but I think you can vouch to say I am a pretty normal guy who has sat under this man for 7 years. By no means is he perfect and some aspects I do disagree with and together we jokingly talked about them on Wednesday over coffee but he has taught me to love Jesus Christ, to serve him, to follow him, to listen out for his voice and call. To serve not only the Lord but the church and to shine a light to the unsaved men and women of this world, I understand his statements recently especially the trust issue one is something nobody wants to hear but I think to vilify a man based on one statement is harsh and unfair even if he cannot see the error in it.

    Just a few thoughts from my end, if I have offended, annoyed anybody etc, it was not my intention and I do apologize if that is the case.

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