I am delighted to see not only that plans for a larger Islamic Cultural Centre have been approved, but that they drew no opposition from any party on Belfast City Council.
It remains alarming, however, how rampant Islamophobia in Northern Ireland has become. Indeed, it is so ingrained, that we have to question to very foundations of our community relations policies and programmes – because, in this regard, they appear to be having limited if any success.
The most basic example is the underlying notion that all Muslims are Daesh-sympathising terrorists. Let us even leave aside the fact that most of the students using the Centre will be from Indonesia, a country which has contributed nothing to global terrorism but suffered significantly from it (notably in Bali). We have to ask serious questions about how anyone from Northern Ireland could cast an entire people as terrorists, given our own experience! This is such a senseless accusation that we have to ask whether it is, in itself, a hate crime – for those making it are clearly incapable of living in a genuinely civilised, pluralist society.
We then have the notion that Muslims are an “alien culture”. They are in fact the culture which has contributed vastly to Western science and mathematics (the numerals we use, for a start), and which has been consistently intertwined with us. This has not always been a happy relationship, but from the Crusades to Western imperialism it is evident that the cause of any unhappiness has scarcely been one side alone! Religiously, they are not particularly different – the core messages of the Qu’ran are the same as those of the Bible.
Of course, just as Christianity has difficulty with its fundamentalists, Islam has difficulty with its. Just as peaceful, loving Christians are the victims of these fundamentalists, so are peaceful, loving Muslims. The vast majority of Christians despaired at terrorism in Northern Ireland perpetrated by self-identifying Christians, at the horror of the Holocaust carried out by what many regarded to be Europe’s most civilised Christian nation, and indeed at the two World Wars with each side led by predominantly Christian countries. Likewise the vast majority of Muslims despair at the ongoing horrors in Syria and Iraq, and feel shamed by the notion that they are carried out supposedly in the name of the religion (while in fact being carried out in marked contravention to its holy book).
Then of course we have the ludicrous notion that somehow refugees are Daesh’s route to influence in Europe. Actually, refugees (noting the distinction from economic migrants) are escaping Daesh. Daesh does not need to hide within groups of refugees risking their own lives to cross narrow strips of water. It already thrives on the radicalisation of some Muslim youths already in Europe – a radicalisation made somewhat easier if non-Muslims around them go out of their way to be overtly Islamophobic.
In some ways most alarming of all is that Northern Ireland’s (and Europe’s) Islamophobes are actually doing Daesh’s work for it. They are buying into the very “clash of civilisations” that Daesh wishes to create, because such a clash will bring more vulnerable young people into its way of thinking, all while utterly destabilising Western civilisation (not least given the number of Muslims living perfectly peacefully in the West).
The actual clash is between civilised people – who recognise that the Rule of Law must apply equally to all, that different views and values must be fairly represented in society, and that those of different political opinions and objectives have an equal right to be heard provided they do not engage in hate or violence – and uncivilised people. Daesh is made up of uncivilised people. We in Northern Ireland and the West should not be joining them in that group.
Belfast City Council should be applauded for extending the hand of friendship to its Muslin community and, particularly, for doing so in a way which integrates them (through a Cultural Centre open to all) rather than banishes them to “their own community”. It is just possible that, in this case, the politicians were ahead of the people. It is time people stopped doing the work of Daesh for it. We must recognise, in opposition to all fundamentalists, the value of an integrated, multicultural society.