Peter Robinson Islam row: Doctors may quit health service
Fears over NHS workers and foreign investment as bid to defuse row fails
One of Northern Ireland's most senior surgeons has warned that Muslim doctors may leave the health service here as the row over Peter Robinson's comments about Islam deepens.
And as anger grows over his remarks, another senior Muslim medic called on the First Minister to resign because of the hurt he has caused.
Mr Robinson sparked fury after he said he would not trust Muslims for spiritual advice but would trust them to go to the shop.
Yesterday the DUP leader tried to defuse the row by saying he did not intend to cause any offence and last night he met representatives of the Belfast Islamic Centre.
A DUP statement said: "Mr Robinson outlined his views and made it clear that there was never any intention on his part to offend or cause distress to anyone. He said that if anyone interpreted his remarks in that way that he would apologise to them."
But anger is growing among members of the Muslim community who perform vital work in the health service here.
They have said that Mr Robinson and other members of his party must distance themselves from controversial remarks made last week by Pastor James McConnell who said he did not trust any Muslims.
Dr Khalid Khan, a plastic surgeon who worked with victims of the Omagh bombing, said he was concerned that Pastor McConnell said he had the support of Peter Robinson and Health Minister Edwin Poots.
He said: "Some other Pakistani health workers I have talked to are even more upset. Our biggest worry is that our Health Minister is a follower of that pastor. He needs to say that there has been a misunderstanding and he does trust Muslims. He should remember that we perform a lot of key functions in the health service and some of us may leave."
Mr Khan's daughter Enya, who was born in Belfast and is studying medicine in England, says she does not now think she will ever return here to work.
Another senior Muslim medic contacted the Belfast Telegraph to say that only Mr Robinson's resignation would clear the air now.
Samina Dornan, a consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician at the Royal Victoria Hospital, is of Persian and Afghan origin but has lived most of her life in Ireland.
"I don't do religion but it doesn't mean I don't respect people's faith and so should senior politicians," said Mrs Dornan, who is the stepmother of the actor Jamie Dornan and the wife of Professor Jim Dornan.
She said she was more concerned for Northern Ireland's image than offended as a Muslim.
"I love living here, I am so proud to be here but I have never been so embarrassed in my life to be from Northern Ireland." she said. "I am getting phone calls from my friends in Pakistan, America, South Africa and England asking what is going on in this country. I feel ashamed to the core and he should resign. That is all I want to say."
There are signs that, unless he can retrieve the situation, Mr Robinson's comments could also impact on investment from the Muslim world.
Yvonne Ridley, a well-known English journalist who was kidnapped by the Taliban and later converted to Islam, is currently on a speaking tour of Muslim countries as vice-president of the International Muslim Women's Union for Western Europe and is using the comments of Pastor McConnell and Mr Robinson as case studies in Islamophobia.
Last night she spoke in Qatar, a major target for Invest Northern Ireland, where Mr Robinson has led a trade mission.
"How on earth can he [Peter Robinson] be expected to extend the hand of friendship, hospitality or the corporate branch of government when meeting leaders from the Muslim world?" she asked. "If he was heading a public company he would have been forced to quit by now as part of a quick damage-limitation exercise by outraged shareholders."
She rejected his statement of clarification, in which he said his comments had been taken out of context. She said: "Mr Robinson is going to have to eat a whole load more humble pie before Muslims can trust him again."
Upset, angry and offended... the reactions of four Muslims who call Northern Ireland home
Dr Khalid Khan: Senior plastic surgeon, originally from Pakistan
Dr Khan did much of the reconstructive work on survivors of the Omagh bomb, and when he got a new job outside Northern Ireland in 2000 there was a petition for him to return. “I came back from Nottingham after five or six months,” he said. “This is my home. I have lived here longer than in my native country of Pakistan. When I go back there to visit my parents I feel almost like I am in a foreign land.
“I didn’t take the pastor that seriously at first but when I see the Health Minister and First Minister in the same camp as him I feel very, very strongly about this.
“I have had a good life here but now I worry for my children. I have a boy and three girls, two of the girls are still at school”.
Yesterday morning one of his daughters told him: “This gives me the message these people did not accept Catholics in 400 years, so there is no way they are going to accept me.”
Coming from Pakistan’s North West frontier, Dr Khan knows full well the effect of extreme views. “The head of a state seems to be encouraging polarisation when the wounds of this province are just about scarring over,” he said. “Talking against Muslims is the all the rage now. Nigel Farage is getting more votes because he is on the far right and I think this sort of talk is an attempt to get more votes.
“I have given my heart and soul, blood and sweat to the health service in Northern Ireland and the pastor said that one of his biggest supporters is the Health Minister Edwin Poots. That is what worries me.
“Unless our Health Minister comes out and says, ‘I don’t endorse his comments’, a lot of people like me believe we are in trouble,” he said.
Calling for Mr Poots to reassure the many Pakistanis and other Muslims who are working in the health service that they are welcome, trusted and respected here, Dr Khan revealed that some staff were considering leaving Northern Ireland altogether.
Mohammed Ali: Londonderry shop owner
“I was so angry at the things Peter Robinson said, he is supposed to represent every single person living in Northern Ireland but he insulted and patronised people of my faith.
“That shows his lack of knowledge about the Muslim faith and his words hurt.
“I work hard to provide for my family, I pay taxes and so many other Muslims do the same everywhere in Ireland and he thinks we are only good for going to the shop.
“I have lived in Derry for eight years and not once have I heard anyone say anything to me like Peter Robinson and the pastor said.
“I have friends who are Catholic, I have friends who are Protestant, I have friends who are Muslim and not one of my friends agree with Peter Robinson and the pastor.
“I am not afraid because of what he said but I have Muslim friends in Belfast and they are afraid.
“He has now tried to back away from his words but he did not even say sorry, I think if any Muslim is attacked, then Peter Robinson and the Pastor will be responsible.
“If he came into my shop I would tell him to get out.”
Enya Khan: Trainee doctor
Enya, who was born in Belfast and is studying in Bristol, has been turned off the idea of working in Northern Ireland after reading Peter Robinson’s endorsement of Pastor McConnell.
“If he has a personal view against Islam or Muslims I don’t think it is appropriate to express it so publicly. The whole issue has diminished the likelihood of my returning to Belfast to work as a doctor,” she said.
“I have lived my whole life in Northern Ireland, I was born in the Ulster Hospital and I went to Bloomfield Collegiate. Belfast is the only home I know and my experiences in Northern Ireland have all been pleasant with warmth and hospitality from my friends,” she said.
But she added: “I know the historical precedents of anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic sentiment. I think Islam is the new focus for unjustifiable contempt and I don’t want to live with that. For the First Minister to rattle that up and stir the pot in any way in inexcusable.
“I would rather stay in the south of England where I am at the moment. You would never hear that sort of thing here. No major politician would say it.”
She was unconvinced by the First Minister’s statement of explanation putting his views in context.
“Mr Robinson said that he wouldn’t trust Muslims to give him spiritual guidance. I don’t think that is an appropriate thing for a senior politician to be saying. It is important to respect all religions, no matter what you believe yourself and such a public statement is offensive.”
Dr Mazhar Khan: Heart surgeon, originally from Pakistan
Dr Khan is a world-renowned heart specialist — who spent more than three decades working as a leading cardiologist at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast — said he was hurt at the First Minister’s defence of Pastor McConnell’s controversial anti-Islamic remarks.
“I am really disappointed by the comments of the First Minister as he is somebody who is supposed to represent the entire community.
“I was surprised he would defend those views.
“If somebody came to me as a doctor but said they did not trust me I would be shattered.”
Dr Khan, who is a member of the Belfast Islamic Centre, said he had been heartened by the flood of messages of support in recent days from members of the local community who do not share Pastor McConnell’s views.
“Mr McConnell has the right to make any statement,” Dr Khan said. “But freedom of speech also comes with responsibility.
“I worked for over 30 years in the Northern Ireland health service. If I’m being told I’m not being trusted that is hurtful,” he added.
“Every religion must be treated with respect.”
Statement by the First Minister
“Over the course of the last 24 hours my remarks in response to a newspaper reporter have been misinterpreted and given a meaning that was never intended.
“I would never seek to cause any insult to any section of our community. For the avoidance of any doubt I make it clear that I welcome the contribution made by all communities in Northern Ireland, and in the particular circumstances, the Muslim community.
“I very much value their contribution at every level to our society and I will take the opportunity to meet with local Muslim leaders to demonstrate my ongoing support for them as integral law-abiding citizens in Northern Ireland.
“I strongly believe that Pastor James McConnell has the right to freedom of speech. I will defend his right just as I defend the right of others to express views with which I disagree. People have the right to express their differing views and indeed the essence of democracy is the ability to do so in a way that is free from fear and intimidation.
“No part of me would want to insult or cause distress to local Muslims. I can assure members of the Islamic community I respect their contribution to our society. I believe in building a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland and have always endeavored to work for the betterment of all the people of Northern Ireland.
“I look forward to meeting with representatives of the Muslim community as soon as it can be arranged.”