‘I am sick of hearing all Muslims tarred with the same brush’

After a week when you could have been forgiven for thinking Northern Ireland was going to hell in a handbasket, a community worker in a Loyalist area posted this rant about Muslims on Facebook:

This is message is for all my friends. I am sick of hearing about Muslims this Muslims that, They are all not bad there is moderate Muslims just like Loyalist and Republicans. My daughter married a Muslim from Egypt and went down to stay with his family for a month in Alexandria and was treated like a lady amongst Muslims. As most people know I am from a loyalist background which I am proud of and I work with all sections of the community regards religion and colour.  I am sick of hearing all Muslims tarred with the same brush as my daughter was treated with the upmost respect in the middle of a Muslim country.  If any of my friends don’t like what I have put on then just delete me of your friends list.

It struck me there is more wisdom and courage in that statement than most of what we heard from our religious and political leaders in response to the events of the past week.

Just to put it in context a little, this was said by a man who if he looked at you the wrong way on the bus, you’d probably get off at the next stop (I hope he forgives me for saying that).

The Muslim community in Northern Ireland needs to know that there are people here who have their backs.  Some of us do trust you.  Some are even willing to lose friends over you.

I contacted the author of these comments and I asked him if I could share them in this blog post (with names removed).  He agreed and added a little more about something else that happened last weekend.  He said:

…took son-in-law to baptist church in [town] with me this morning wot a reception he got he thinks northern ireland people are brilliant and so friendly as my daughter had told him about all the negative stuff that was going on…..told everyone he was a muslim not 1 person was negative towards the lad.

There are different types of prejudices of course, and it’s a brave person who claims to be above it all.  Maybe it’s Muslims, maybe it’s Christians, maybe it’s Loyalists, maybe it’s Republicans.  Whatever it is, all it takes is the right set of circumstances and our lofty ideals are toast.

Racism runs deep.  It’s not just about how we treat people.  It’s how we talk about people.  It’s how we think about people.  It’s how we feel about people.

Some people claim racism is a working class problem (it’s all those poor folk who are the racist ones, right?) but just watch how quickly things kick off in Cherry Valley if a group of travelers were to move in at the bottom of the road.

The good news is that racism is not natural.  Racism is learned and it can be unlearned.

Thank you to the good people of Alexandria, Egypt, for teaching a Loyalist community worker that not all Muslims are bad.  And thank you to the same community worker for teaching the rest of us.

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‘Not really being very democratic’: Loyalists Against Democracy, part 3

LAD3This is the third in a series of posts that came about after I asked, several times, those behind the Loyalists Against Democracy site to meet up with me.  They refused.

I am not the only person to object to LAD.

In parts 1 and 2 I asked 12 influential people to offer their opinion on the Loyalist Against Democracy website.  These were a combination of community relations workers, community workers, writers, academics, a politician, and a church leader.  They were male and female, and catholic and protestant.  Together they have hundreds of years of experience of peace work.

They raised concerns about the mendacity behind LAD.

LAD laughed it off.

The first thing to say is that LAD should not make light of the views of those who have together spent hundreds of years helping to build the peace they now enjoy.  It is one thing to mock those you think contribute to the violence.  It is quite another to mock those who have contributed to peace.  It is arrogant in the extreme.

It is interesting that LAD featured uncritically on BBC Northern Ireland’s ‘The View’ this week, as their ‘tweet of the week’.  Perhaps next week ‘The View’ might want to use the one below?

LAD C

Others in the media have started to question LAD.  These include journalist Brian Whelan, who in a tweet referred to LAD as ‘the Loyalists Against Democracy joke (that got a bit old)’.

On Friday at the Political Studies Association of Ireland conference ‘Alan in Belfast‘ said it was time for LAD  to ‘wise up and grow up’ (part 2 20:25).  Likewise, panelist and journalist Alex Kane (part 3 3:00), warned against the tone LAD takes.

LAD have every right to say the things they do.  What they don’t have the right to do is complain when the same mirror that they hold up to other people is then turned back on them.  Claim you want to expose sectarianism and bigotry?  Then don’t complain when people point out your own bigotry and prejudices.

LAD claim to have noble intentions.  They claim to be providing a public service in exposing sectarianism.  They do this through a process of the public online shaming of individuals that they decide need shaming.  Aside from that not really being very democratic, I wonder how many of these individuals have been convinced by LAD’s tactics and now hold a different worldview?  I would imagine there aren’t many.  With this in mind it’s probably worth asking if they have actually helped in any way to eradicate sectarianism?  Probably not.

It is one thing to speak truth to power.  It’s quite another to attempt to speak ‘truth’ – if that is what this is – from a position of anonymous, unaccountable power, as LAD do.

A number of people have contacted me telling me who they think LAD are and who they are connected to.  One of the concerns some people have about LAD is that they have cranked up sectarian tensions.  I have no intention attempting to ‘out’ them, but Loyalists should at least know that LAD are not part of some Republican agenda against them.  LAD are self-loathing Unionists.  Unionist self-hate is nothing new.  David Ervine said that Unionists invented the word Loyalists so they could separate themselves from those in their own tradition that they considered ‘scum’.  That tradition is alive and well today.

Another interesting feature about LAD is that they thrive on anonymity.   It’s easy to make fun of people when you do it behind a mask.  I have a problem with anonymity and unaccountability, whether it’s on the streets or on the internet.  I suppose LAD would probably be critical of those who pull on a mask and go out on to the street bullying people, the same should apply to those who pull on a mask and go on the internet bullying people.

I know LAD don’t think they are bullies – bullies never think they are bullies – but this is what a female friend – fed up with LAD – wrote to me: ‘Those LAD dicks are simply bullies that the middle classes can like. I do despair for this country sometimes.’  They also might want to consider why some of the contributors to my previous two blogs were so worried about LAD’s bully boy tactics turning on them that they did not want their names included.

One feature of democracy LAD claim to be exercising is the ability to engage in open public debate.  When we step out of line there are people around us to pull us back in (indeed, that is what LAD claims to do).  No one is above criticism.  No one, of course, except LAD.  Object to their discourse and you get told you are a ‘tit’, an ‘arsehole’, a ‘c**t’, or an ‘ass’.  When LAD is offered any sort of critique, it just reverts to exactly the kind of bully boy tactics that it claims to oppose.

Instead of striking out at the most powerful, LAD often strikes out at some of the most vulnerable.  Is having problems with literacy funny?  If you know someone who struggles with literacy and the stigma that is attached to it then you know that it is anything but funny.

The pleasure that LAD seems to take in mocking literacy levels is alarming.  LAD argue that if you are sectarian (again, by their definition of sectarianism, where it seems only working class unionists can be sectarian) then your lack of literacy is fair game for ridicule.  I would ask LAD that if people are sectarian and also have cancer is it also fair game to make fun of them for having cancer?  I wouldn’t think so.

I can think of something much more productive LAD could do instead of laughing at people who struggle to read and write.  LAD could pour their creative energy into setting up or helping out at homework clubs in Loyalist areas where there is educational underachievement, in order to tackle the poor literacy levels they like to highlight.  That way they could really start to address the problems facing Loyalist communities instead of laughing at them.  I can’t imagine they will, but I would be happy for them to prove me wrong.

Exposing bigotry or exposing their own bigotry? Loyalists Against Democracy: part 2

LAD R

Part 2 continues with responses that I received from people who wished to comment on the Loyalist Against Democracy website.

From a male church leader with a long history of involvement in peacebuilding:

‘I’m not a huge fan of the site though I have dipped in and out from time to time. I suppose my main problem with it is the same problem I had when the church made statements condemning violence (in either camp) but there was little going on on the ground to change things. The megaphone approach of condemnation or satire by middle class Christians or secular-humanists, unmatched by a willingness to get hands dirty and change hearts and minds is ultimately self-defeating… driving those you pontificate about further into a corner… Especially when LAD has turned its ire on those like John Kyle, who are trying to make a difference. This only serves in fulfilling the paranoia of those who claim to be on the margins already by forcing them further out of “respectable” society. My other problem with it as a satire site is that a lot of it just isn’t funny… That said, the campaign against the facebook site by those within loyalism, be it the repeated claims of harassment getting it banned, or the denigration of it as “Republican” is further proof that large swathes of loyalism are not interested in democracy or free speech, but only in hearing their own perspectives and prejudices repeated… But then they have learned that trick from established unionism with it’s constant criticism of the “liberal” BBC because it shines a light on the poor behaviour of the PUL community… The BBC (and media in general) doesn’t need to do any investigative journalism to uncover the shadowside of the PUL community – we parade it for the world to see… putting it on facebook and youtube… Yet when the BBC or LAD or anyone else draws attention to it then there is a loud cry of foul republican plot… If the PUL community put its own house in order then LAD would be out of business and the BBC would only be reporting the misdemeanours of republicans…’

From a female writer involved in education:

‘I suppose I would start by saying that if they are serious about challenging sectarianism then the way to go about it probably isn’t to only have a go at one side of the community. But aside from that…

The PUL people (who also actually count as ‘the people’ despite the fact that LAD seem to think they represent, er, everyone) may not have legitimate fears but they are certainly real fears, and those fears won’t dissipate through ridicule. I am angry at the flag protestors too. I’m angry that they have harmed their own community so much. The LAD group wants to suggest that they’re only having a go at flag protesters but their page is full of nasty comments about working class PUL in general. Last Christmas I sat and listened to a taxi driver in East Belfast who said he felt suicidal because he’d lost so much business. Those were his people on the street- very possibly people that he agreed with ideologically- and they were crippling him. So when everyone gets lumped in together they include him, and they include the bus driver who, that same evening, had his bus bricked as [my partner and I] sat at the back (the brick bounced off the window but the window completely shattered). He was really rattled, and he had to continue his round.

LAD like to make fun of people for poor grammar and spelling, they like to suggest that working class PUL people are thick. I say, if they’re so clever then why are they spending their days on photoshop making crap jokes? If they’re concerned about sectarianism then perhaps they should be championing those people doing community work is difficult areas. Low literacy isn’t a joke, neither are the suicide rates in East Belfast. There are plenty of working class PUL people spending *their* days trying to keep kids off the streets and trying to sort this shit out.’

From an elected PUL male politician:

“LAD was apparently born out the flag protests and quoting them “L.A.D. is a cross-community, non-political group set up to combat the growing tide of sectarianism in Northern Ireland through the use of satire” in effect they have evolved to be an instrument which mainly parodies some within the PUL community. Yes they undoubtedly highlight sectarianism but do seem to ignore other types of sectarianism from within republicanism for example. At times I find myself occasionally agreeing with them when they highlight the unelected ‘leaders of on the ground loyalism’ doing or saying simply stupid things, in fact things that I would imagine would embarrass many Unionists and Loyalists.

I’ve read comments on Facebook from a very unrepresentative section of the PUL community [LAD has then highlighted] which is appalling, sheer hatred of the RC community which has no place in our society. But I would feel confident that similar stuff is written on Facebook about ‘Pradisans’ but LAD choose to ignore it. Perhaps their core readership wouldn’t find it so funny?

One final issue that I would have is how funny does LAD think it is to highlight some within the PUL community who have difficulty spelling? How is that tackling sectarianism? Rather it is simply making light of an issue of educational under achievement which should be addressed but this is certainly not the way to do it. Is LAD then achieving its core aim?  Not by my standards.”

From a male community development worker in a Loyalist area:

‘Mmmmm. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure…I laugh, but I know I shouldn’t. The ludicrousness of loyalist incompetence is vying with genuine compassion for a struggling community. But I’m also aware that there is a darkness to loyalist culture that needs to be exposed and satire is a critical tool in exposing it. So I welcome the satire, though is it just me that detects that whilst in the early days there was genuine comedy in it, in recent weeks a really nasty streak seems to be emerging in the material.

Wonder too whether is is possible to be satirical about republican culture. Maybe I’m just not aware of where it’s happening.’

Male community development worker and peace worker:

If I’m honest, I’ve laughed out loud at some LAD posts and sworn out loud at others. LAD is a sign of the times we live in, lacking depth or accountability. It’s own haste trips itself up and is reactive which is always easier than creative. I find it cruel yet I laugh so what does that make me?

It’s unwillingness to engage face to face is worrying but not untypical of Norn Iron.’

This is more what I was trying to say:

‘It is easier to be against something than for something. And yet, it is much more gratifying to create than to destroy.’ – Miroslav Volf

A final thought from a very experienced community relations worker:

Step back. Point. Laugh. Call it satire. Call it whatever you like (and “satire” can cover a multitude of sins) but when it starts and stops there then in the final analysis its falls far short of any constructive address of Loyalism’s often genuine short-comings. In the final analysis it is very little real use to anyone. It’s easy though (far easier than a genuine involvement) and will get you attention if there are a few laughs to be had (and yes I have laughed at some of their material).

At this point I should also declare my own bigotry. I am from protestant working class unionist stock. Truth be told i jettisoned my unionism many years ago so LAD’s material doesn’t offend my pretty much non- existent Unionism/Loyalism. However when it openly declares its middle class credentials and castigates and ridicules entire working class communities then my working class bigotry can get a quick re-visit. So who am I to talk eh?

Exposing bigotry or exposing their own bigotry? Loyalists Against Democracy: part 1

ladHaving grown concerned about some of the discourse that those behind the ‘parody’ Loyalists Against Democracy (LAD) website were using I contacted them and asked them to meet up and discuss what they felt they were contributing to peace.  I asked them politely several times, all of which they declined.

Following their refusal to meet up, I decided to address my concerns about LAD on here.  In order to do this I asked a range of writers, academics, church leaders, politicians, and community workers to give their opinion about LAD. The response was so great that I decided that the best thing to do was to publish their opinions in full. The amount and depth of responses mean that I will publish them in two parts.  I have ordered them in the order they were sent to me.

Because LAD are faceless and hide behind a mask, making them unaccountable, I promised my contributors anonymity if they wished. However, I will give a little general information about the background of each person.  What follows are not my opinions, these are the unedited opinions of very experienced practitioners and thinkers who have contributed significantly to building peace in this part of the world.  They are a mix of voices from the Catholic and Protestant communities.  Cumulatively they have hundreds of years of experience in peacebuilding.

Firstly, from an experienced male community relations worker from the Catholic community:

‘You know, I haven’t “liked” it – some of the things I’ve seen linked to from other people’s posts about it are funny, but I have a problem about it – and I reckon that any loyalist friends of mine would feel like it does their cause damage. I’m not a loyalist, and I have major problems with the idea that loyalism is under attack (I don’t believe that at all) but I don’t think that the loyalists against democracy page is helpful.’

From a female community worker in a Loyalist area:

‘whilst sections of their sectarian satire posts can witty, it is a dangerous dark humour which serves no purpose other than to crank up already heightened tensions.’

From a male community worker in a Loyalist area:

‘The LAD site can occasionally be quite humorous and the political satire chewing gum for the mind. However I once heard a phrase about another column entitled Wit & Wisdom and LAD fits the same bill, very little wit and absolutely no wisdom.’

This from a widely published male community worker and writer and on Loyalism and Unionism:

‘..my opinion is that the growth of this kind of satire is fascinating, painful to see and that it will grow. For what was it Karl Marx said about history occurring the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce?  You see the loyalist cultural project is now so eaten through with incapacity that it seems entirely farcical for bands calling themselves Young Conquerers to be so patently losers – and so this invites the kind of vicious comic treatment that LAD offers, made all the more potent because twenty five years ago, loyalism still had tragic muscle and in certain quarters a sharp, grounded and innovative ethos. Yes, LAD is cruel, as all humour can be very cruel and it makes the abasement of the PUL psyche even more grievous but I doubt if the tide of ridicule can be turned, until enough PUL people come to see that one needs to exercise self awareness in order to know how to stop being a butt of humour and a laughing stock. Any school teacher knows that a kid who is mocked will only stop being mocked either when he learns to modify his behaviour or when he is protected by an authority figure, and that authority figure ain’t there so there has to be some quick learning going on, in the art of self-scrutiny and self-remodelling.

[There is] nothing more delicious to a nationalist or to someone who was a rotten Prod than mocking the deposed and neutered Loyalist bully, risky too as he may still have strength for one more knuckleduster punch. Dangerous too. As Nietzsche pointed out, he who fights with monsters must beware lest he too becomes a monster. The mockery of Bryson is in part a fearful class based thing, the derision for the uppity wee skitter from the estate, who wears cheap sports gear and a gold chain and gives you lip at the bus stop.

..superladtube [is] taking it to a whole disconcerting new level of cruelty…however some of the deconstruction of the infamous uvf remuralling project on you tube is utterly brilliant and morally impeccable.’

A female writer wrote:

‘It comes across as really superior and snobbish. As we heard on the news yesterday Northern Ireland’s literacy levels are terrible. It’s nothing to make light of. If they’re so clever, what are they doing to help?’

The final extract of part 1 is from Dr. Gareth Mulvenna, a visiting research fellow at Queen’s University, who did not mind his name being used:

‘LAD Fleg may claim to be the creation of a cross-section of our community, including working class Protestants, but one wonders what it actually adds to the debate. Rather than move things forward this type of parody only serves to reinforce liberal, middle-class, stereotypes of a community which is felt to be holding the ‘peace process’ back. More out of step with modern society are dissident Republicans yet we rarely see social media being used to the same extent to highlight the ridiculous, but more threatening, nature of their activities. The loyalist flag protestors, like the white working class ‘chavs’ which Owen Jones wrote about in England, are easy meat for those who have a delusional sense that Belfast begins and ends in the Cathedral Quarter. The dissidents are harder to challenge and pose the most severe threat to the peace due to their violent nature. Flag protestors, particularly the younger ones, should be given the opportunity to be understood – what are their social and economic concerns? Can we educate them about the welfare state and the best aspects of their British culture? That way we can move forward. Laughing and sneering at the loyalist community won’t fix anything.’

Part 2 will contain extracts from other writers, community activists, a PUL politican, and clergy.

Where do we go from here: chaos or community?

king

No matter who you talk to in the political landscape of Northern Ireland there’s a good chance they’ll tell you Martin Luther King, Jr. would be on their side.  Nationalists have long associated themselves with King because of the civil rights movement.  In Republican areas murals of King can be found on walls alongside other iconic figures.  Interestingly, King’s name has also started to be mentioned by Unionists and Loyalists as an example of someone who used civil disobedience to protest against laws he believed were unjust, albeit in different circumstances.  Perhaps they are also aware King was a Protestant minister, and King’s father (known as Martin Luther King, Sr. or ‘Daddy King’) changed both his own name and his son’s name as a tribute to the father of the Protestant reformation.  If so, this will add to the appeal.

In 1967, towards the end of his life, King published the last of his three books about the civil rights movement in the U.S.A., entitled, Where do we go from here: chaos or community?  In it King writes:

‘We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation.  This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.’

The first point to make is that we can safely assume that were King alive today he would have used gender inclusive language.

Secondly, it seems to me that after the violence seen on the streets of Belfast in the past week we could do with asking ourselves the same question as King: Where do we go from here: chaos or community?

Chaos is easy.  In fact, if all we want is chaos then we don’t really have to do much at all.  We can just keep doing what we’re doing year after year after year.  My friend Francis Teeney likes to remind me that Einstein once said: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’

If we want community we are going to have to take a different path.  Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes ‘community’ like this:

‘In here, in the community, we can relax – we are safe, there are no dangers looming in dark corners (to be sure hardly any ‘corner’ here is dark).  In a community, we all understand each other well, we may trust what we hear, we are safe most of the time and hardly ever puzzled or taken aback.  We are never strangers to each other.’  (2001: 1-2)

If we want to ‘understand each other well’ and be ‘never strangers to each other’, then things are going to have to change.  It’s not impossible, but it will take a lot of work.  Listen to the testimony of this political ex-prisoner to see what is possible through hard work:

‘We went, I went to a seminar, conference…. you’re talking about maybe three hundred, four hundred people, at a conference for the weekend.  INLA, UDA, IRA, UVF, I mean, sitting doing work, classes for the weekend.  I mean, first night, after you got your dinner, went into the bar, that was your free night, and to see people from the IRA, UVF, UDA sitting in the bar drinking, talking and telling jokes.  It proves to me that things are changing.  You know what I mean?  People can get on, you know what I mean?  And to me that was a big big thing.’

This didn’t happen overnight.  It started by people talking to each other.  We need leadership from everyone in positions of influence, it’s no good relying on politicians.  On last weeks Sunday Sequence William Crawley rightly rebuked religious leaders on both sides for not leading the way in talking to each other.  After we start talking we might have to have more talks.  And after those talks, we may need more talks.  And so on and so on.  And if this sounds like too much effort, then there is an alternative: chaos – we can just keep doing what we’ve always done.

Those who think the situation is hopeless are ignoring the many examples where dialogue has happened, and accommodation and compromise has been reached.  It’s possible but it won’t be done without hard work.  Both the Orange Order in North Belfast and the local residents groups that oppose them need to ask themselves how the Orange Order manages to have marches in the Republic of Ireland every year with no trouble, as well as in Derry/Londonderry and other areas of the North.  This does not happen by accident.  It is only achieved through dialogue, hard work, and understanding by all involved.  This is the side Martin Luther King would be on.

Review of ‘Ex-combatants, Religion and peace in Northern Ireland’

A new book that has just been published that will be of interest to students and academics of the Northern Ireland conflict, as well as peace work practitioners, is ‘Ex-combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland‘ by John Brewer, David Mitchell, and Gerard Leavey.

The book breaks new ground by exploring the controversial issue of the religious outlooks of ex-combatants, both Republican and Loyalist, in the conflict in Northern Ireland.  The authors highlight that religion has often been viewed as a contributing factor in the violence of the conflict, but little has been written about the personal religious beliefs of the combatants themselves.  This book aims to address that gap.  It is interesting that this type of approach has not been attempted before, perhaps illustrating the top-down narrative that is often applied to the conflict by academics and commentators.  Instead, this book attempts, quite correctly, to allow those who were involved in the conflict to speak for themselves, and the authors draw on material from their own interviews carried out specifically for the research.

The book also carries extra significance for another reason.  The authors point out that the interviews conducted for the book were carried out just before the Boston College row broke – a dispute that may have wide repercussions for those involved in research on the conflict, and which resulted in many ex-combatant groups withdrawing from participation in such research projects – and the authors believe that that given the fall-out from this case, this may be the last study involving ex-combatants for some time.

Aside from these reasons, the book is a fascinating read.

Themes the book explores include: Religion and the Northern Ireland Conflict; The Personal Faith of Ex-Combatants; Religion and Motivations for Violence; Religion and Prison; Ex-Combatants and the Churches; Perspectives on the Past: Religion in the Personal and the Political; and finally, Religion and Transitional Justice in Northern Ireland.  The book concludes by proposing a framework for understanding the contribution of religion in transitional justice.

One important point the book makes is that there existed a broad range of religious beliefs found among combatant groups:

Generalisations and stereotypes that were prevalent during ‘the Troubles’ are clearly false – such as the IRA being a Catholic army on the one hand or a god-less and Marxist front on the other, or Loyalists being irreligious thugs or evangelical madmen. Combatant groups contained the array of religious commitment and unbelief found in the wider society. (p.44)

The book explores some of the dark unexplored corners of the conflict, addressing questions that have been rarely asked, or not asked at all.   One of these questions is of the relationship, or lack of, that existed between combatants and the church.  It highlights the failure of the institutional church – aside from a few individuals – to engage in any meaningful way with combatant groups.  The authors write in the introduction:

And we come to the same gloomy conclusions about the contradictory role of religion (in this case, in ex-combatants’ choice to desist from armed struggle) and the same highly critical judgement of the failure of the institutional churches (in this case, to assist ex-combatants in this transition). This is no better demonstrated than by two of our respondents, one a Republican ex-combatant who was told by a priest to ‘fuck off’ when he went to confession as a result of emotional anxiety; the other a Loyalist ex- combatant who said the mainstream Protestant ministers treated him as scum, like something disgusting found on the rich leather sole of their rather expensive Italian shoes.‘ (p. ix)

If the book has a limitation it is that it limits itself to non-state combatants in the conflict.  The views of those in state forces remain unknown, perhaps scope for future work.

This book is the first of its kind.  There will no doubt be further studies and publications on the subject in the future but this important and much needed text will prove to be the reference point concerning religion and ex-combatants in Northern Ireland for students and academics for many years to come.