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Comment - Warren Little - You guessed it: the Robinson /McConnell tag team is not really about religion

Published: 5 Jun 2014 15:300 comments

Let’s ignore, for the sake of argument, the results of the pastor James McConnell’s comments and Robinson’s post script. Let’s put to one side for the moment the impact on Northern Ireland’s 4,000-strong Muslim community, our ability to attract investment from Islamic countries and the damage to our international reputation.

Warren Little.

McConnell is a fundamentalist religious preacher, and he is not expected to fetter his words with such earthly sensibilities. He is expected to deliver to us his robust, uncompromising sermon no matter how inconvenient the content for the fashionable tolerances of the day. He is expected to speak truth though the sky may fall, and he is granted a certain social licence to do this upon the assumption that he can proffer some force of argument and remain faithful to his conclusions. He should at the very least agree with himself, at which point we can heed him, criticise him or simply ignore him.

Against that background James McConnell began to speak to his thousands of followers at his huge church in North Belfast: ‘Now people say there are good Muslims in Britain’, he growled. ‘That may be so, but I don’t trust them.’

‘Any of them?’ he was asked later, in the ensuing storm of criticism. ‘ANY of them’, he confirmed emphatically. ‘There are aggressive Muslims, there are millions of them. They are going to take over the world…I don’t trust them, none of them.’

What about the Muslims that attend his church? ‘Well I don’t know… I say hello to them... yes I would trust them.’ And thus McConnell’s edifice starts to crumble. What about the Muslim children he raises money to treat in Africa? ‘Oh I trust the children’. More crumbling. What about Muslims in Northern Ireland? ‘I trust Muslims in Northern Ireland because they give no bother’. No bother, he says, big chips of masonry now raining down, they’re okay because they give no bother. In the beat of an Amen we have gone from distrusting all Muslims to only distrusting the ones that give ‘bother’. And so it continued. By the end of the interviews great hazardous chunks of rock were falling from McConnell’s facade. We never got to hear his express position on Muslim children who do give bother. And presumably a Muslim child, who gives no bother, from Northern Ireland, is the pick of the bunch. But we just don’t know. The key to understanding all this is, apparently, something unspecified to do with Sharia law, though why the Northern Irish Muslims are any less controlled by it than the two million peaceable Muslims in Britain is not explained either.

Into this sorry dereliction strode our First Minister, without so much as a hard hat. ‘When you’re up preaching a sermon’, he said, his voice squeaking with incredulity that we could be so stupid, ‘you’re not defining a legal document where you’re entering all the caveats and conditions and qualifications. You’re taking a broad stroke at issues’.

But what Robinson failed to acknowledge is that McConnell’s ‘broad stroke’ was so broad as to render it almost diametrically opposed to the reality. The category of ‘Muslims who give bother’ is such a tiny percentage of ‘any Muslim’ that it is an aberration; no good measure of Muslims at all. If the exceptions to the ‘broad stroke’ serve to exclude the vast majority of the group, then aiming that stroke at the group as a whole is far more wrong than it is right.

What lies beneath this debate is not religious doctrine at all but the age-old suspicion of the ‘other’. That is why McConnell did not give a doctrinal critique of Islam and leave it at that. That is why he began with our religious people can be trusted, other religious people cannot. That is why he later stretched under pressure to the further absurdity: our Muslims are fine, other people’s Muslims are not. And that is why he invoked Enoch Powell’s melodramatic ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, which had nothing whatsoever to do with Islam and everything to do with race, immigration and a fear of the ‘other’.

Robinson weighed in on this episode either because he shares McConnell’s suspicion of the ‘other’, or because protecting his ‘own’ is more important than appearing rational, or that he sees votes in a combination of the two. So he set about trying to build McConnell a scaffold, contorting himself into ridiculous hypotheticals about not sending jihadis to the shop. He complained about the ‘demonization’ of McConnell, when McConnell’s own description of Islam as ‘satanic… spawned in hell’ met squarely the definition of that word. And he complained about ‘taking a molehill and developing it into a massive mountain’, when it was his own unnecessary intervention that sent the story around the world.

It ought to have been plain to any political leader that McConnell’s foundations of reasoning were unsafe and his views always destined to be widely condemned. But we mustn’t forget that Robinson and others in the DUP – Messrs Poots, Wilson and Campbell support McConnell too – have built their entire party from a suspicion of the ‘other’. The inconvenient truth we must really confront is that it appears to be a winning formula.

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