It sounds like the punch line to a bad joke, but there was nothing funny about the brutal attack by racists on a Muslim family in Armagh this week. Has hatred in Northern Ireland found a new target?
What’s it like to be a Muslim in Northern Ireland? When a Muslim family moved to the province they hoped to side-step the troubles between Catholics and Protestants. Instead, they became a new target for local bigots, as this exclusive interview reveals.
Two years ago, a quiet, religiously devout family set up home in a predominantly Protestant area of Craigavon, County Armagh.
Religion in Northern Ireland
0.3% Other religions
13.88% No religion/not stated
– Source: 2001 Census
They had moved from the Republic of Ireland to be near friends and family and were looking forward to joining the small Muslim community which has grown up in Northern Ireland over the last century.
Today, the extended mixed-race family, which includes six children, is in hiding after a series of racist assaults culminated, last weekend, in an attack on their house by a gang wielding baseball bats.
It was the last straw says, Sonia, (not her real name), the mother of the family and an Irish-born convert to Islam. “We’re leaving Northern Ireland completely. We’ve had enough. It doesn’t matter where we go, this place is just not ready for different people. They have enough problems coping with themselves.”
It’s a bitter irony how, in a region which has been blighted by terrorism for 30 years, it took the 11 September al-Qaeda strikes on America to provoke the initial hostility towards Sonia and her family.
The first to feel the heat were the women wearing the hejab Islamic headscarf.
“I wear the hejab and my daughter covers her face. I certainly don’t encourage her to do it, it’s her choice. But it leads to all the usual insults in the street such as ‘Bin Laden’ and ‘terrorist’.”
The first attacks came from local teenagers, then older men. Sonia was hit in the back by a pellet gun. Her disabled son was chased down the street. A shot gun was fired into their home. The children were regularly jeered on their way to and from school.
Muslims tiny minority
One day, says Sonia, one of her children came home saying he had been taunted because he could not answer a question.
“My son walked in and said: ‘Mam, are we Prod or are we Catholic?’ I said, you’re a Muslim.
“And he said: ‘I know I’m a Muslim, but am I Prod or am I Catholic?’ We thought we had been making progress, but the child who had asked him the question was maybe six years old.”
The ethnic make-up in Northern Ireland is like no where else in the UK. Immigration is virtually unheard of and urban areas are almost uniquely white. In a province dominated by Christianity, just a tiny fraction – 0.3% of the population – hold a different religious belief.
“When we moved here, we initially thought we could avoid the politics of the north because we were neither Protestant nor Catholic. I now believe we were extremely naÔve to think we would be welcomed.”
Stones would fly into the garden or bounce off windows. Comments would be made either under the breath or openly in the shopping centre.
“They constantly made us aware that we were not welcome. We became total prisoners in our own homes. What was hardest was that the children had to be educated at home.”
Sonia believes plans by other Muslims to build a mosque in the area became a focus for bigoted locals. She also blames a lack of local leadership by councillors after “White Nationalist Party” propaganda began to appear.
A leaflet, obtained by the BBC, shows two policemen standing outside a mosque in London. Underneath, it reads: “A desire by local folk to maintain the Christian traditions of the town’s architecture, combined with the fear of Al-Qaeda style terrorists operating in the area, has been derided by those wanting to turn Northern Ireland into another Bradford or Birmingham.
“We are proud of our British culture … we do not need mosques, temples (sic) or Islamic terrorism here in Ulster.”
The irony was not lost on Sonia. “Well if they don’t want terrorists what are they doing about people going around with guns shooting into people’s houses. If that’s not terrorism, for God’s sake, what is?”
Their torment reached crunch point in the small hours of last Saturday, 5 July. Nine men wielding baseball bats and iron bars surrounded the family home. The gang, who did not cover their faces, set about smashing every window.
“They screamed: ‘Don’t say you were not warned, we told you to get out’.”
Something scared off the attackers, possibly police sirens, but by then, Sonia, her husband and the children had decided to pack up and go.
“When someone comes to your home with a bat in his hand that makes it very personalised… you can see they were courageous enough to stand there and do it,” she says.
“We were totally distressed and have not slept. The police have given us assurances but after a couple of months we’d expect the attacks to start again.
“I am so hurt and have experienced such negativity it has changed my personality.
“All we can do is try and look for a future away from all of the hatred, ugliness and small mindedness of some of the people of Northern Ireland.”
“I try to be balanced because we have had very positive experiences from some good people. But knowing that my neighbours are horrified isn’t going to save the lives of my children.”