Belfast Islamic Centre would like to thank Cllr David Armitage for his motion, seconded by Councillor Lyons recognising the long history of minority faiths in Belfast with particular mention of hate crimes against people of faith. At the Belfast City Council meeting on Thursday 1st February, representatives of the Belfast Islamic Community and of the Belfast Jewish Community were given the opportunity to address the Council in relation to the motion. Presentations were given by Dr Sandra Ballie of the Jewish Community and Methodist College Belfast pupil Zoraiz Kashif on behalf of the Muslim Community, Full text of our address can be found below.
There was also a motion to provide a Room of Reflection in City Hall Proposed by Councillor Boyle, Seconded by Councillor Mullan. This room would be open to people of all faiths, including Muslims wishing to pray salah. We would like to thank all the councillors for their support.
Presentation to Belfast City Council on 1st February 2018 on behalf of Belfast Islamic Centre.
I would like to thank you for this opportunity to address the council. Given the recent focus on Muslims in Northern Ireland I would like to present a little more about us.
Islamic links to Ireland and Britain stretch back much further than many realise. It’s possible that the first Muslim to arrive in Ireland was as long ago as 845AD on a diplomatic mission to the Vikings. However, it was during the Elizabethan era, after political and trade alliances were formed with various Islamic Empires, that Muslims began openly living, working and practising their faith in Britain. The earliest documented arrival of Muslims to the Island of Ireland date to the 1700s when Indian Muslims working with the East India Company immigrated to Cork.
Muslims have lived in what is now Northern Ireland long before its formation. Possibly the first mosque in the region dates from the early 1800s, the ‘Cockle House’ in Crumlin Glen was reportedly built facing Mecca to facilitate prayers for a Muslim servant. Some of the earliest Muslim families to settle initially lived in Castledawson and Dungannon after the First World War. The migration of former colonial and commonwealth workers after the Second World War, lead to the formation of more visible Muslim communities in Britain and Ireland. In the 1930s and 40s Muslim immigrants set up successful businesses and factories, primarily in the textile and clothing industries. Their families still live in Belfast to this day.
Belfast Islamic Centre (BIC) the first (and largest) Islamic Centre in Northern Ireland was officially established in 1978 from the Belfast Islamic Society which first met in the 1950s. The recent growth of Northern Ireland’s Muslim population is a direct consequence of the reversal of migration patterns after the troubles.
The total population of Muslims in Northern Ireland is estimated to be around 6000 individuals. Around 0.4% of the population.
Despite their small numbers, Muslims have made a significant contribution towards academic life here. There are at least 500 Muslim students in our universities as well as lecturers and research fellows. Many have been at the
forefront of academic research obtaining international recognition for their work particularly in the fields of Medicine, Engineering, Computing and Science. Just two examples include Dr Wasif Naeem (current chairman of Belfast Islamic Centre) who received the Michael Richey and Denny Research Medals in 2008 and 2010 and Dr Gasser Abdelal, from Queens, who is leading the design, manufacturing and testing of Ireland’s first space satellite.
Muslim Doctors have been working in local hospitals for many decades. There are approximately 400 Muslim doctors working here, as well as many medical students and junior doctors. Some of the most well-known include the late Dr Mazhar Khan notable cardiologist and former President of BIC and Dr Harith Lamki, former chairman of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (IOG) and current trustee of BIC. A number of prominent Muslims have received recognition for their contributions to society: Mrs Amtul Mazhar Khan, Dr Raja Harun, Mr Javaid Naveed and Mr Yaqub Joya who all received MBEs.
In recent years the settled community has also been joined by a number of asylum seekers and refugees. They have embraced the opportunity to rebuild their lives, encouraging their children to invest in their education. Many have set up businesses, keen to give something back to the community that has welcomed them.
Of course, careers and achievements are secondary to the fact that Muslims are mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, friends, work colleagues and neighbours. Muslims are not merely contributors to Northern Irish society, we are an integral part of it.
In 2004 a group of Muslims in conjunction with Belfast City Council planted a cedar tree in the grounds of Belfast Castle – a symbol of our roots here in the province. At present those who use Belfast Islamic Centre represent 42 different countries of origin. As well as immigrants, our community is comprised of multiple generations of Muslims born, raised, socialised and educated here. There are many young Muslims just coming of age, completing university degrees or entering the professional world. We want to encourage them to be fully part of NI society while also being proud of their faith and heritage.
It is difficult to hear the words of those striving to make certain members of society feel unwelcome because of their faith or background: desperate to cause division, suspicion and fear. However discouraging, they will not prevail. The voices of support and acceptance have been much louder.
Local Muslims were founder members of the Northern Ireland interfaith forum and we are working now with the Jewish Community, Clonard and Cllr David Armitage to develop a ‘Three Faiths Forum’. To counteract hate and challenge misconceptions, creating a platform where people of different faiths can have positive and meaningful relations, even when we fundamentally disagree with each other.
Looking to the future, we hope the increasing diversity of this city opens up new opportunities for innovation and creativity. When we realise there is more that unites us than divides, then we can build a fair and integrated society where we learn from and benefit each other. Where everyone feels welcome.
The council meeting including the presentations can be viewed here: