I have never been to Northern Ireland. Regrettably, my introduction to Belfast has come online, amidst the increasing furor created by the region’s First Minister publicly suggesting that Muslims are less than fully trustworthy.
Watching the BBC show featuring Belfast Evangelical Pastor James McConnell and Dr. Khalid Anis, my sense of déjà vu was palpable. Some Sudanese Imams routinely make sweeping, McConnell-style, negative depictions of vulnerable groups. The results, I assure you, are predictable.
Someone attacks someone else; someone has to move from her or his home, or place of work. Sometimes the tension doesn’t subside. In a climate of fear, neighbors begin to suspect neighbors and soon, extremists have hijacked the public conversation until only one question remains, “Are you with us or against us?”
But that’s Africa, you might say.
Don’t be so sure.
Hateful language frequently leads to hateful actions.
Until the intervention of Northern Ireland’s most senior elected official, First Minister Peter Robinson, the increasing vilification of Muslims across Europe has tended to come from a fringe on the far right.
For Northern Ireland’s de facto First Citizen to broadcast to his fellow Muslim citizens a message that at root says, ‘I don’t trust you because you are Muslims’, is an attack not only on individual Muslims, it is an assault attack on the very concept of equal citizenship.
Stereotyping, scapegoating, scare-mongering, and raw ignorance are most definitely not problems made in or unique to Belfast.
Like Mr. Robinson, too many Muslims in my home country of Sudan lump all Christians together and, again like Northern Ireland’s First Minister, when asked about Christians, many Sudanese Muslims start by citing the views and actions of extremists who hail from Christian backgrounds.
By generalizing entire faith groups based on the worst and most extreme among their number, vulnerable and minority communities become tainted.
As a Sudanese Muslim living under political asylum in the United States, I have some personal experience of the consequences of such reckless and destructive political and religious leaders.
My calls for greater tolerance and increased access to education for my fellow citizens were beginning to resonate with the youth of Sudan. In response, Sudanese political authorities justified coming after me by citing, as ever, self-serving readings of religious scripture.
In response to indirect challenges from our increasingly frustrated, desperate and impoverished population, the Sudanese authorities escalate divisive religious rhetoric. The results can be horrendous.
Take the case of my fellow Sudanese citizen, Meriam Yahia, sentenced to death for apostasy. Her treatment is an outrage.
Her persecutors’ appalling abuse of power is obviously devastating not only for Meriam and her family but for all Sudanese citizens who can transparently see the real agenda here.
Meriam’s death sentence has nothing to do with the essence of Islam, which is, in my view, a faith relationship between oneself and God.
Meriam’s death sentence has everything to do with the politicians exploiting fear and sowing division.
When political leaders, under the cover of religious piousness, abuse the religious faith and sense of powerlessness of some of the least educated, when they whip up passion and drown out dissent, the emergence of moderate voices is stifled.
The consequences of labeling vulnerable people as satanic or heathen or apostates amid a climate of rising fear, frustration, and fury, can be much more than hurt feelings.
Northern Ireland’s most vulnerable communities are entitled to expect the support of their highest office holder.
Instead, like some of the most vulnerable in Sudan and beyond, minority communities in Belfast will be feeling much less secure following the broadcast of First Minister Robinson’s ‘reservations’.
Rabble-rousing in a climate of fear may help office holders consolidate their power but for citizens deemed a threat, the consequences can be deadly.
Last September, over 200 of my fellow Sudanese were killed during peaceful protests in the capital city of Khartoum. The killings directly followed hate speech from nervous political leaders and bigoted religious clerics.
To those throughout Europe who condemned the hate speech of Western political and religious leaders towards Muslim groups, I simply ask: Did you protest the Sudanese Government’s crackdown on our citizens’ protest?
Islamist extremists offer Western bigots an opportunity to paint the entire Islamic population with a reactionary and extremist brush. But attacking the ignorance of men like Pastor McConnell and then moving on is too easy.
I hope the international pressure on the Sudanese government to release Mariem Yahia will be successful. I am optimistic. The Sudanese government cares much more about staying in power than about Islamic theology – so keep up the pressure.
The job of Western opponents of hate speech must be to make common cause with the forces calling – and dying – for reform within the Islamic world.
We need more than your condemnation of the bigots in your midst. We need your solidarity in the fight against the bullies we face at home.
TEDxKhartoum organizer Anwar Dafa-Alla worked as executive producer on this alternative look at Sudan.