Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Northern Ireland's Islamic community display dignity and charity in the face of intolerance

The people who emerged with most credit in the aftermath of Pastor James McConnell's incendiary comments are the members of Belfast's Muslim community, both secular and observant.

The Islamic Centre, and Dr Raied Al-Wazzan, its executive secretary, reacted to the whole situation with a combination of grace, dignity and political astuteness. They got the very best out of what could have been a very bad situation by helping Peter Robinson off the hook he had publicly impaled himself on.

Mr Robinson took days to realise the full extent of the offence he had caused ordinary Muslims, even to ones who were not particularly devout.

His apparent endorsement of Pastor McConnell's incendiary comments was a mistake.

It made many people, from surgeons and doctors in our hospitals to the men attacked on Parkmount Street, feel that distrust of them ran to the top of our political establishment.

At first Mr Robinson tried to brush off criticism and explain away his defence of Pastor McConnell's outburst, then he offered a qualified private apology. That was never going to be enough.

"Words and actions," Dr Al-Wazzan demanded, and that is what was needed.

Mr Robinson made his original remarks in public and yesterday he had the courage to apologise in an equally public way. He showed respect to our Muslim community and acknowledged that offence was caused.

Now he and our other politicians need to go a step further.

He has to help the Muslim community find land and planning facilities for a new bigger Islamic Centre which will include a custom-based mosque with minaret and dome.

Storm: Pastor James McConnell
Storm: Pastor James McConnell

So far attempts to create such a building in both Portadown and Belfast have been bogged down in planning disputes. That is something the executive can help solve. A community of 8,000 worshippers needs a proper centre and if a similar Christian community were denied one in a Muslim country we know what would be said. Many would not accept that it was just a planning matter.

The Islamic community should, like any other faith group, pay for its own place of worship.

However, our politicians have been very good at getting church and loyal order halls grants for running youth clubs and other community activities as well as rates relief. Every effort should be made to help the Islamic community in this way.

Muslim are the ones who have come out of this best. It was a Christian cleric who made the harsh and intolerant comments which sparked the crisis and it was an Imam, Ibrahim Noonan, who responded charitably.

A convert to Islam, Yvonne Ridley, even spoke up for Northern Ireland and the friendliness of its people to her fellow Muslims in Pakistan.

Muslims are often characterised in the west as extreme, unreasonable and untrustworthy. That was the stereotype which Pastor McConnell mistakenly voiced.

In this instance it is the Islamic community who have behaved with the most consistent moderation and integrity. That is something we should all remember if we hear our Muslim neighbours criticised again.