Journey into Belfast: Part 2

The Muslim Welfare Centre

by Alaya Forte and Asmaa Soliman

We go to Belfast University to attend 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 Donna. Shortly after we arrive a young Muslim lady approaches us and introduces herself. Her name is Branda and she is an Irish Muslim convert. After we introduce ourselves as well as our research interests Brand suggests to meet the Muslim Welfare’s Sheikh Mohammed. Even though she has an appointment in the evening she offers to come with us to the Sheikh and to organise a spontaneous meeting with him. She also agrees to meet us in the next morning, just a couple of hours before we take our flights back to London.

The NIMFA (Northern Ireland Muslim Family Association), known as the Muslim Welfare Centre and the Belfast Islamic Centre are the only two official Muslim organisations in Belfast. They are so busy on Fridays they must hold two Jumu'ah prayers at each centre to accommodate all those wishing to attend. The Muslim community has been on the look out now for new premises for some time, but there are still many issues to sort out.

Sheikh Muhammed greets us with a box of date filled cookies - Maamoul, an Eid specialty - and fruit juice. The ground floor is busy with visitors coming and going, and for all the Sheikh has a moment, a few words of advice and a joke, which betrays his Egyptian origins. He is charismatic and deeply cherished by his community, there is no doubt about that.
We could observe how easy-going he was and how relaxed conversations were between him and others. Especially when talking to young women, it felt like he was their father who cares about them. Likewise, we find ourselves won over by this little man who settled in Belfast in 2005 after having lived in America and Canada, and has recently battled against cancer. A graduate of Al-Azhar University, he speaks of his mother, his father and his first Sheikh as being his role models, those who despite their country origins made huge sacrifices to educate him instead of sending him to work, and whose brothers and sisters he then helped in turn.

He speaks of his faith – he is a Muslim, nothing more and does not like the idea of sects and categories – and as a Muslim he must follow the laws of the country he resides in above all else. He praises the religious freedom in northern Ireland, especially when compared to the intolerance some Muslims can experience in their own Middle Eastern countries. He stresses the importance of having free time activities at the mosque, such as sports and social gatherings. For him the concept of a mosque should not be based solely on religious service but should cover various fields and areas. He also talks extensively about the need to respect each other and describes Pastor McConnell’s comments as the first instance such views against the Muslim community have been voiced in public. There have been some incidents of racial and religious prejudice, but these have been few and far between.

Sabinah, who was interviewed on the Stephen Nolan radio show the previous night, calls the Sheikh in the middle of the interview, recounts one of such incidents as she tells us of the bricks and eggs thrown against her house and her window. An Irish Muslim she returned to Belfast from Tanzania after divorcing her husband. She is firm in denouncing what are in effect acts of racism, a type of racism she never experienced while living in Africa, but which make her fearful of living in her home country where she was born and grew up. Even the Sheikh advised her to remove the veil if it was causing her and her family such distress. The only solution, she thinks, is for people to properly understand what sharia is.

The following morning we wake up early, have quick breakfast and set off to meet Branda before we leave. We have coffee together and start talking about Muslim-Irish issues. Branda is 36 years old. She is Irish and converted to Islam a couple of years ago. She identifies as Irish Muslim and sees both as equally important. She stresses that converting to Islam has not made her less Irish. In her eyes everyone finds his own way of combining identities and it is enriching to have such a mixed identity. What makes her Irish is her upbringing in an Irish context and an Irish family. For her Belfast is home, even very little things like her accent make her already very Irish. Also the awareness of the Irish historical conflict forms an important part of her self-understanding.

Asking her how she feels as a Muslim in Belfast, Branda says that the majority of people are respectful towards Muslims. Yet, she has been sometimes a victim of racism and Islamophobia. She compares the situation to England and says that in England one is less visible as a Muslim because Muslims form a big part of society. However, she says in Belfast one rather stands out.

The main problem that she sees in Northern Ireland is the economic situation. There is also a high number of suicides which she argues is often related to the Irish historical conflict, the loss of meaning and identity. With regard to improving relations between Muslims and non-Muslims Branda stresses that it is the responsibility of both. The most important point she singles out is personal contact. One the one hand, Muslims should open their doors to non-Muslims to make them learn more about their lives. On the other hand, non-Muslims should make an effort to approach Muslims to learn more about them. There is often still a lack of knowledge and trust she says.

Before we ended the conversation Branda starts to reflect more on her religiosity. She explains that it is always difficult to keep one’s faith constantly strong. There are ups and downs she says. Yet, she tries to engage in religious activities as much as she can. This reminds us that relations between communities are also not always stable and are challenged by specific circumstances. And it is faith as well as interfaith-dialogue that can help overcome these moments.

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