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…
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