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.
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.