Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

From Peter Robinson and Pastor James McConnell to Martin Amis - foot-in-mouth disease is fairly widespread

Peter Robinson along with Muslim leaders outside the Islamic Centre in Belfast. Pic Arthur Allison
Peter Robinson along with Muslim leaders outside the Islamic Centre in Belfast. Pic Arthur Allison

There's a certain satisfaction in being able to dismiss Pastor James McConnell and Rev Ian Brown as redneck reactionaries sprouting racist rubbish and Peter Robinson as a prissy politician with a penchant for following whatever section of the mob is galloping with greatest haste towards the outer reaches of rationality.

Robinson is also out of touch with the vast majority of under-6os, unable, apparently, to understand that his remark about sending a Muslim to the shops was at least as offensive as anything hurled by McConnell at his Whitewell audience, or by Brown at the Ravenhill congregation which worshipped Ian Paisley until the Big Man revealed himself a closet ecumenist.

Party loyalty has ensured no members of the DUP have publicly distanced themselves from Robinson. But there are members of the party filled with dismay, not just at the cack-handed way he handled the issue, but at the poisonous attitudes he appeared to espouse.

The episode will be seen in time as a contributing element in the descent of unionism into incoherence. Not everyone who is adamant about defence of the Union shudders at the thought of association with people from ethnic minorities, or of non-Christian beliefs.

However, before we smother ourselves in congratulations for being pure and progressive in a society characterised by narrow-mindedness and suspicion, let us acknowledge that the Pastor, the Rev and the DUP leader have been gifted to us as easy targets. But they haven't said anything that hasn't previously been said by people who remain well-accepted within the political and journalistic mainstream.

Some will recall the controversy sparked a few years back by the novelist Martin Amis telling a Times interviewer that: "There's a definite urge – don't you have it? – to say, 'The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.' What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East, or from Pakistan ... discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children."

Getting into his stride, he continued: "They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs. Well, they've got to stop their children killing people."

If that wasn't scary enough: "They're also gaining on us demographically at a huge rate. A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they'll be a third. Italy's down to 1.1 child per woman. We're just going to be outnumbered."

Defending Amis against allegations of racism, the novelist Ian McEwan wrote: "I've known Martin Amis for almost 35 years and he's no racist." Almost all of those who joined in debate in journals such as the New Statesman and The Guardian, while condemning his remarks as ill-thought-out and irresponsible, accepted Amis was not a racist.

Peter Robinson declared "I have known Pastor McConnell for 20 years", and that there wasn't "an ounce of hatred in his bones". But McEwan didn't take anything remotely approaching the abuse now directed at Robinson.

Three months ago a Daily Mail column by Richard Littlejohn, headed 'Jolly jihadi boys' outing to Legoland', referred to the hiring of the theme park in Windsor by a strident Muslim cleric for a "family fun day".

Writing in supposedly satirical vein, Littlejohn suggested that one of the coaches would be "packed with explosives" and that the "driver will blow himself up" as they pass through Parliament Square. Girls would be required "to report to the Kingdom of the Pharaohs for full FGM inspection", while boys would "report to the Al-Aqsa recruiting tent outside the Land of the Vikings for onward transportation to Syria." There were complaints, but no demonstrations against Littlejohn.

None of these parallels can excuse the outbursts of McConnell, Brown and Robinson. The DUP leader and First Minister in particular, charged with representing the whole of Northern Ireland, is entitled to no hiding place.

The size of the demonstrations in Belfast and Derry last weekend was remarkable given the shortage of time and tiny numbers involved in organisation. It is to be hoped that the turnout this coming Saturday will be significantly larger.

But we should keep in mind that Islamophobia is not a Northern Ireland phenomenon, but a feature of world politics in the era of Western intervention in Muslim countries.

To shout out against the minor local miscreants, while ignoring the world-class scoundrels whom they echo, would be small-minded, parochial and not at all as cutting-edge progressive as we imagine ourselves to be.

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