Islam and Dialogue in Northern Ireland
by Harrison Akins
As the sun shone brightly as our plane touched down in Belfast after arriving from Edinburgh, I had no idea of the storm we were landing in.
I was traveling with my professor, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland, on a new study, Journey into Europe, examining Islam in Europe in collaboration with our UK partner the Muslims, Trust and Cultural Dialogue project. We were arriving in Belfast for Ambassador Ahmed to give the 2nd Annual Harri Holkeri Lecture at Queen’s University Belfast on May 29, hosted by the Institute of the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice and its director Professor Hastings Donnan.
I was coming to Belfast for the first time aware of the problems this region had faced during the Troubles but largely unaware of the new challenges emerging in regards to the Muslim and immigrant communities. Just days before arriving in Northern Ireland, a local pastor named James McConnell had announced from his pulpit at the Metropolitan Tabernacle that the religion of Islam was “satanic” and stated that Muslims were “heathens” and he did not trust them. A statement of support by Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson stoked the controversy around Pastor McConnell’s statements further. Having only been in Belfast for a matter of hours, Ambassador Ahmed was inundated with interview requests from BBC’s Good Morning Ulster, BBC Northern Ireland television, and UTV. For a region which has experienced such horrific violence in its history, these statements only serve as reminders of wounds still healing, wounds which lie upon religious lines.
These comments demonstrated the unfamiliarity, fear, and mistrust which is too often associated with the Muslim community in the United Kingdom. As a prelude to Ambassador Ahmed’s lecture, it also demonstrated the vital need for the spirit that is infused in the Annual Harri Holkeri Lecture—peace, understanding, and reconciliation. The lecture series was named in honor of the former Prime Minister of Finland and his important role in the Northern Ireland peace process and forging the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Held in the iconic Council Chamber at Queen’s University Belfast, the packed audience for Ambassador Ahmed’s lecture, titled “Islam, Peace Building, and Conflict Transformation”, was overflowing with people standing in the back and spilling into the reception area to watch. The audience included leading scholars, politicians, journalists, and Lords, such as Lord Rana, as well as a varied religious landscape of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus.
Professor James McElnay, the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Postgraduates, welcomed the audience. The lecture series was then introduced by Minister Leena Gardemeister, the deputy head of mission for the Finnish Embassy in London before Professor McElnay warmly introduced Ambassador Ahmed.
Knowledge and compassion was at the heart of Ambassador Ahmed’s message in his lecture. He stressed the need for knowing and understanding the Other as a means of reconciling differences and conflict. Discussing Pastor McConnell’s comments, Ambassador Ahmed contrasted his message to those of Dr. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury who we recently interviewed for the Journey into Europe project. Dr. Williams told us while sitting with him in the Master’s Lodge of Magdalene College in Cambridge, “The phenomenon of Islamophobia reflects…waking up and thinking ‘I don’t know what my neighbor is thinking. They could be thinking anything. They could be planning anything.’ When you realize you’ve not really gotten close to your neighbors, you can either panic or you can say, ‘It’s time I started, isn’t it.’ So either you react by projecting all sorts of mysterious and terrible things onto them or you sit with them and listen.”
Likewise, Ambassador Ahmed contrasted the position that First Minister Peter Robinson of Northern Ireland took in supporting the divisive statements of Pastor McConnell with that of the First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond. Having recently met the Scottish First Minister at his office in Scottish Parliament along with his External Affairs Minister Humza Yousaf, it was clear to us that Alex Salmond works to reach out to minority groups and make them feel at home in Scotland and a part of one nation. He argued that there is no incompatibility between Scottish identity and Islam.
These ideas of dialogue and understanding resonated with the multicultural audience during the question and answer session moderated by Dr. William Crawley, a Broadcastor with BBC Northern Ireland. The response from the Institute’s Director, Professor Hastings Donnan, was equally positive as he expressed appreciation for Ambassador Ahmed’s lecture at Queen’s University Belfast. He wrote, “As always, you did a wonderful job and presented an inspirational counterpoint to the news that has been preoccupying the local media here since the beginning of the week. It was great to have such a distinguished public intellectual deliver this prestigious lecture and everyone I have talked to since is singing your praises.”
This lecture could not have been timelier for Northern Ireland, a fact noted by many of the guests at the lecture. As Northern Ireland continues to deal with the controversies around Islam, immigration, multiculturalism and identity, they should heed the spirit of peace and dialogue with which Ambassador Ahmed gave his lecture and learn lessons from their own history in order to building stronger bridges between faiths and communities in a peaceful society.
Harrison Akins is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC. He is currently accompanying Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland, on his latest field project Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire.