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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 July, 2003, 08:43 GMT 09:43 UK
'This place is just not ready for different people'
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Picture posed by model
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.

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 past 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.

'Enough problems'

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."

I know I'm a Muslim, but am I Prod or am I Catholic?
One of Sonia's young sons
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 the US to provoke the initial hostility towards Sonia and her family.

The first to feel the heat were the women wearing the hijab 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.

Tiny minority

One day, says Sonia, one of her children came home saying he had been taunted because he could not answer a question.

White Nationalist Party leaflet
A racist leaflet that was recently circulated
"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 nowhere 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 na´ve to think we would be welcomed."

Mosque plans

Stones would fly into the garden or bounce off windows. Comments would be made either under the breath or openly in the shopping centre.

45.57% Protestant
40.26% Catholic
0.3% Other religions
13.88% No religion/not stated
Source: 2001 Census
"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."

Baseball bats

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?"

We have a diverse society and we need to encourage people to respect and value that diversity
Joan Harbison
NI Equality Commission

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."

Some of your comments:

Ulster Protestants know what it is like to feel alienated. Yet we allow this kind of bigotry, racism, sectarianism, homophobia and sexism to exist as a cancer in our society. I am ashamed to come from Ulster and to be proud of my Protestant roots. We will never have peace if we continue to behave like this.
Graham, UK

Muslims have long had a good image of Irish people who they see as facing religious struggles of their own. But this is disgraceful news.
Aftab Ali, UK

I am an African-American who visited Northern Ireland in 2001. I was welcomed by very friendly people, both Catholic and Protestant. I have bragged about how things have changed for the better. There are still ignorant bigots, but the majority of people there are law-abiding and warm-hearted.
Forest Jones, USA

The greatest crime committed by some of the people of Northern Ireland over the past 30 years is that they've taught their children to hate.
Charles, UK

I have read several comments indicating it is the minority who are to blame. But how many would intervene if they witnessed racism? The majority need to stand up to fight this disease.
Asif, UK

I was brought up in Co. Armagh and I'm totally sickened. I'm ashamed of my heritage.
John, born N Ireland

It doesn't surprise me to be honest. If these bullies can't tolerate people of their own faith (but from a different denomination) how will they tolerate others who are completely different?
Nafisa Adam, UK

Why do people fear that which is different?
Haseeb, Scotland

A sad story. Northern Ireland is not like this. People are friendly and welcoming to everyone, regardless of their beliefs. It is essential to remember that wherever things like this happen it is the minority and not the majority who are to blame.
Fiona, Scotland

There are still people in Northern Ireland for whom the notion of tolerance is so utterly alien.
There are many like me who don't care about race, creed, gender etc - but it's those who are looking for any excuse to fight who taint this country.
September 11 was a reminder that we should remain ever vigilant. Sadly there are those who saw it as another reason to pick on members of other communities.
Stephen Carlin, Northern Ireland

I find this story sickening, frightening and disappointing.
Yaw Ansah-Boateng, England

Im Disgusted. In the country I love very dearly I feel ashamed to be British.
Are those people so hypocritical that they can't see the damage done by years of religious rivalry?
Andrew, UK

As usual, it's the small number of stupid, mindless bigots who cause trouble for the rest of us. It appears that this disruptive minority don't care who they pick on, so long as it's someone who doesn't subscribe to their narrow-minded, racist agenda. What hope is there?
James McGregor, Scotland

It is ridiculous. "So-called" Christians acting as terrorists because they don't want terrorists in their area. It's too stupid for words.
Saalik Nazim, Australia

This type of racism and bigotry is totally unnacceptable. Whether the men involved are Republicans and consider themselves Irish or Loyalists who consider themselves British, the majority of people in both countries would be heartily sickened by this story.
Al, England

Family in 'racist' attack
07 Jul 03  |  Northern Ireland
Race attack family to leave NI
10 Jul 03  |  Northern Ireland
Loyalists hit out at racist attacks
03 Jul 03  |  Northern Ireland
NI 'needs to tackle racism'
21 Mar 03  |  Northern Ireland

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