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Why the Nolan Show was right to let bigoted remarks about Muslims be broadcast

We can't challenge offensive opinions unless we're allowed to hear them, says Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

On Tuesday morning I turned on the Stephen Nolan Show and heard a woman saying the most hateful, appalling things about Muslims.

The caller - Janice from Belfast - started off by asking why "so many Muslims wanted to come to our country when there are so many Muslim countries they could go to". After that it got a lot more bizarre. Janice claimed that Muslims were trying to "take over the UK".

Finally she said that, if she was sick in hospital, she would rather "go home and die" than be treated by a Muslim doctor.

It was like Pastor McConnell all over again, with those lurid claims that the Islamic faith was "heathen", "Satanic" and "a doctrine spawned in Hell". If anything, it was worse.

Janice's comments, quite naturally, sparked an enormous outpouring of revulsion on social media and beyond. So was Nolan right to allow such views to be broadcast on his show?

Yes, of course he was.

Far better to expose such prejudices to the bracing air of public challenge than to let them fester in the dark. Suppressing hatred only allows it to grow stronger. Drag it into the light, confront it, put it to the test of truth. That's the best way to deal with such ignorance.

'No-platforming' offensive views, refusing to allow them to be heard, is not the answer. All it does is turn bigots into martyrs, thus strengthening their appeal.

We know that Janice isn't alone in her suspicion and hostility towards the Muslim faith. According to the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, 60% of people living here would not accept a Muslim as a close friend, while 50% would not be willing to accept them as a colleague at work. 68% of residents would object to a Muslim marrying into their family. It's depressing stuff.

So we can't pretend that people like Janice don't exist. They have been given confidence by President Trump's cruel and discriminatory travel ban on people from that highly selective list of countries. Yet the Janices were here all along, nursing their hatred of difference, well before Trump left reality television and started playing dangerous power games in the real world.

But let's remember that social media isn't the real world either. In some ways it's every bit as fake and distorted as reality TV, because it's incapable of showing the full picture.

Yes, it's the driving force behind the enormous petition against Donald Trump's proposed State visit to the UK later this year, and the mass protests demanding that the invitation be revoked. If you go by social media alone, it looks like the whole country is up in arms against him, getting ready to bar the borders against the orange-tinted antichrist.

Yet a new YouGov poll shows that 49% of Britons believe that Trump's visit should go ahead, while just over a third (36%) want it to be cancelled.

This doesn't mean that people who want Trump to come to the UK are necessarily in favour of his travel ban. But it does show that public opinion is not synonymous with what's trending on Twitter.

Nolan was right to cut Janice off at the point when she started ranting about Muslims "breeding like rabbits". By then she'd had her say and been thoroughly challenged, and there was nothing to be gained by allowing her to continue. Just as it's not right to forcibly silence people with offensive views, we don't have to indulge them endlessly either.

But in condemning Janice's irrational and fearful hatred, it's important not to go so far that we disallow any criticism at all of Islam and its adherents. No religion, Islam included, should be beyond critique.

You can't treat anyone who expresses disquiet about certain tenets of the faith, held by many Muslims - opposition to homosexuality, for example - as if they're automatically a bigot. We must be free to question, to comment and to disagree.

There's a big difference between mindless prejudice and reasonable dissent. It's sad that people like Janice - and the large numbers of Northern Ireland citizens who would refuse friendship with a Muslim - hold the opinions that they do.

But we won't change those prejudices by pretending that they don't exist. And we can't challenge them unless we hear them and speak about them openly. That's why it was right to put Janice on the radio, and let her talk.

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