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Why money for mosques should be used for churches overseas

Writing exclusively for the Belfast Telegraph, Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini, the Muslim academic who backed Pastor McConnell, says minorities must help people outside their own communities

Published 10/11/2016

Pastor James McConnell at the Metropolitan Tabernacle with Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini
Pastor James McConnell at the Metropolitan Tabernacle with Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini

The burgundy rayah, the banner of our family, bears the emblem of a slender lunar crescent in gold between whose cusps are clasped the Arabic name of God. Around this assertion of The Faith weave silver and gold strands into an interlocking arabesque, which allegedly witnesses our clan's unbroken bloodlines. Hereby, divinity, religion and genealogy are forged into a statement of identity.

While these days I joke our first patriarch was about as likely to be Cu Chulainn as its pretence of being Abraham, there is an uglier side to all this tribalism in the quiet pride that our family tree remains uncontaminated by black African or, worse still, Jew blood.

This is something I've always found incongruous, given that Islam's prophet affirmed in the Hujjat al-wadaa, "Verily, there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, nor of a non-Arab over an Arab, nor of a red (fair-skinned) over a black, nor a black over a red, except by piety".

Thus, to my ever-so-slightly finger-pointing Catholic or Jewish friends who might buy the liberal narrative that ethno-religious racism is a thing pre-eminently of white Protestant males, let this confession assure you of the rottenness encoded into my spiritual genetics, and yours too.

The horror of events on our TV screens attests to how the manufacture of religion is the pure idolatry of human power trying to subvert the sovereignty of God over all His children.

Out of stone and blood we have sculpted false godlings such as 'Islamic State', as though God isn't already ruler of everything, and 'established church' when Christ was anything but a functionary of the Crown.

The men of religion usurp God by dividing us, and "my tribe versus your tribe" expresses itself in the internet contagion of European anti-Semitism, which has found a host in the Muslim East, translated out from German or Russian and combining there with native Judaeophobia. And heartbreakingly, the heinous persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East now forebodes the extinction of Christianity in its very birthplace, despite the inestimably brave efforts of charities like the Barnabas Fund.

Islamic Scripture itself warns, "For were it not for God's checking of people, one by another, there surely would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, in which the name of God is commemorated abundantly".

And yet, shameless in our guilt, I and my British and Irish Muslim brothers pay to build mosques here without having the decency first to donate our money to rebuild destroyed churches and shattered lives over there.

This is what happens when a nation like Britain or Ireland gives up on values of reciprocal pluralism - the idea that we're all in it together as citizens and have a moral imperative to stand up for the religious freedom of everyone. Instead, the white liberal media subjects Muslims like me to the racism of low expectations that says such a civic demand is too much to ask of a backward people, and rather singularises me as either entirely victim or wholly perpetrator, when the complex truth is that I and my people are both.

Like others from minorities, I grew up with Irish nationalist childhood pals and, later on, musician friends, whom I honour as family and who love me in Gaelic song and fiddle reels and wrap me in the green flag. And I have learned to uphold Irish family in apposition to the remote shadowiness of those austere Ulstermen who surely would have no time for a black lad. And then I met Pastor James McConnell.

Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast was built brick by brick by the pastors and congregation, and the service has more in common with African Pentecostalism than vaporous Anglican smells-and-bells.

Whitewell's sister churches, schools and healthcare missions in Kenya and Ethiopia feed Muslim and Christian children alike. Astonishingly, my friend David, one of the congregants, offered the greeting, "Dia duit", and engaged my love of Irish musicianship and language.

I met Pastor McConnell last December, when the State decided to prosecute one of its citizen for preaching theological criticisms of my religion and the dangers of importing extremism into Ireland. While there are multiple doctrinal matters on which Pastor McConnell and I, as Christian and Muslim clergymen, naturally disagree, our threefold friendship was forged together with our Catholic priest chum, Fr Paddy McCafferty, in shared determination that Ulster says no to judicial interference in spiritual matters of a man's heart.

It is long overdue for minorities and others to honour the Protestant heritage in Ireland, and the patrimony of freedom of speech and conscience it has given civilisation, at a time when it sometimes feels everyone's culture has a right to be respected except the local one.

Understanding and respect for Ulster Evangelicalism, as well as listening to its anxieties about migration and extremism, are critical if we are to avoid the recent violence elsewhere in Europe happening here in Ireland.

Moreover, that Islamism and indigenous backlash might become confounded with the history of The Troubles doesn't bear thinking about.

The pursuit of fairness and justice in any society needs to be sought through dialogue and relationship between minorities and the established majority. Where in place of conversation and reciprocity there is merely wrangling about equality between parties out of communication, this leads to a perceived sense by one or more parties of one-sided demands, double standards" and feelings of being beleaguered and put upon.

The Ashers case illustrates how one community's seeking parity of esteem conflicts with another's freedom of conscience, with prominent gay rights campaigners themselves holding opposing positions on "cakegate".

Likewise, how can Stormont, Dublin or Westminster possibly allow to fester popular bitterness at the plain non-reciprocity of mosques being built at home while there is such feebleness by the state in responding to churches being burned overseas?

There are some remarkable examples such as the Northern Ireland Muslim Family Association in South Belfast, of Shi'a and Sunni Muslims worshipping together in ways that marvellously counter the bloody sectarianism of our times. To these we can add the numerous indigenous cross-communal initiatives across the North and South, which form the seeds of conciliation and which show that peace in this land is hardly a unionist versus nationalist issue, nor does it require for one moment conceding the unique truth-claims of the Evangelical or the Catholic faith. It is simply a case of cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.

Where superpowers have failed spectacularly to resolve the phenomenon of Islamist extremism and domestic integration in the West, it is of course inconceivable that a little island off the north-west of Europe might in its gentle, inimitable way write a different story of reciprocal pluralism for itself. But in our daring to imagine it could, wouldn't that just be a thing?

  • Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini is senior fellow in Islamic Studies at the Westminster Institute

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