Amanullah De Sondy: Pandemic has highlighted many taboo topics — especially race

Diversity is about appreciating our differences and living equally. We don’t all have to be the same, writes Amanullah De Sondy
Amanullah De Sondy: Pandemic has highlighted many taboo topics — especially race

Artists involved Claire Masheti, Esther Airbasoye and Daniella Egwin as Cork Migrant Centre unveiled Black Lives Matter artwork at Nano Nagle Place, Douglas Street. Picture Clare Keogh 

When I arrived in Cork in 2015, one of my very earliest conversations left me worried that moving here from Miami was a mistake. I had raised the question of race and racism in Ireland, and Cork in particular, and was abruptly told that these were all "USA issues" that I should now leave behind.

I was left scratching my head when I learned that — at that time, prior to the current UCC president’s appointment — the university had no data collected on race or ethnicity.

“We don’t see race, the university accepts everyone,” went one response.

Granted, race is not biological — we are all the same in that regard — but we do know through our histories and social realities that race has a real impact on our lives.

I was born and raised in Glasgow, where issues of race were rarely talked about, but no matter how many times I’ve worn a kilt there’s always someone who asks that dreaded question: “But where are you really from?”

The way race organises society teaches us about the structural foundations of social power.

Even though we long ago divided our worlds between ‘east’ and ‘west’ and ‘north’ and ‘south’, all is not lost: now more than ever before, we are having open debate and discussion right here in Ireland.

This pandemic has been a great teacher. It has highlighted many subjects we avoided, especially race. 

Being vulnerable and disempowered have effects, but many of us carry privileges and can access networks or social statuses that allow us to ‘not see’ certain matters. 

But Covid-19 has left us all vulnerable. Whether rich or poor, white or black, we have all had to deal with lockdown, the uncertainty of death, and all sorts of curbs on our freedoms.

The death of George Floyd by police brutality left us all stunned. 

We know this wasn’t the first time a black man had been killed in such a way. But there was something powerful in how this death shook us all, and all at once. 

A Black Lives Matter protest in Cork. Picture: Andy Gibson
A Black Lives Matter protest in Cork. Picture: Andy Gibson

We could all feel the cries for help he made to his ‘Mum’. We felt connected to George as we watched his funeral live on our TV screens.

Here in Ireland our culture is full of ‘mammy’ stories — from Baz Ashmawy’s ’50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy’ to Brendan O’Carroll’s ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ — we are now connecting things we see here with other places. Lately, our connections, sympathy, and empathy have become more intensified by necessity.

Several times now, I’ve walked past a mural at Sullivan’s Quay here in Cork that boldly states ‘Black Lives Matter – End Direct Provision’. 

Never did I think a massive, expressive statement like this would surface so near to my university, which only recently started a conversation on race. But every time I pass it, I smile and think how special Cork is.

To me, it is a symbol of raising awareness that we are all in this together. 

That together we can unite on matters that concern us. It is recognition that Ireland has seen a twofold rise in inward migration and that we need to find ways of bridging our divides.

Race is an issue that has been well and truly brought into the spotlight here in Ireland. I have been pleasantly surprised by how much news coverage has been dedicated to the many stories that we previously failed to appreciate.

That’s the thing about diversity — appreciating our differences and living equally, side by side in those differences enriches our society. We don’t all have to be the same, and we are learning that Irishness is made up of a multitude of colours and that is exciting.

Signs, symbols, and spaces have the power to bring us together in humanity or to separate us. Because my field of expertise is religion, I see the current controversy surrounding the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, as another case in point.

The spectacular and iconic Byzantine building was originally constructed as an Orthodox Christian Cathedral around 532 by Justinian I, then under the Ottomans was ‘converted’ to a Mosque in 1453, in 1935 it was ‘secularised’ into a museum, and now in 2020, the Turkish President Recep Erdogan announced that Islamic prayers will take place there from July 24.

This has brought heated debate to the extent that even Pope Francis said that “thinking of Hagia Sophia” made him “very distressed”.

As the pope must well know, the history of buildings and spaces being ‘converted’, especially when it comes to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is long.

Let’s not forget the Temple Mount, as it is known to Jews, where today the Al-Aqsa Mosque stands in Jerusalem — a conflict that we have failed to resolve for centuries.

Synagogues, churches, and mosques all glorify a single deity, but our differences and triumphalist convictions continually and ironically aim to quarter up God. Surely this distresses us all.

Space that we share, especially sacred shared space, will always be controversial.

But if there’s anything we should be learning from our recent discussions, it is this: just as we need to accept different identities and ways of living in our society, we all need to feel at home in our spaces, no matter how contested they are.

A Black Lives Matter protest in Cork earlier this month. Picture: Larry Cummins
A Black Lives Matter protest in Cork earlier this month. Picture: Larry Cummins

We must let our spaces reflect the values we profess in word and deed.

Back home in Ireland, Croke Park — named after the Catholic Bishop Thomas William Croke (1824-1902) — has announced that it will welcome Muslims to congregate to offer Eid prayers at the end of this month.

The green pitch will allow large numbers of congregants to attend safely. This important Islamic festival is celebrated by Muslims globally to commemorate Abraham’s sacrifice of his son and God’s grace.

It also marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, where religious rituals are said to draw Muslims closer to God in remembrance and prayer.

Eid for me is a time for joy, peace, and connections and, I often think about how Muslims in diverse locations all over the world celebrate this differently. 

The result here will be a highly Irish, highly Muslim occasion — what a wonderful expression and act of mutual co-existence.

The pandemic is giving us this chance to recognise our differences and their effects on society but simultaneously to draw closer to one another. I’m thankful for public reminders like the Black Lives Matter mural in Sullivan’s Quay, which entreat me to accept the challenge, continually, repeatedly, with others by my side.

- Dr Amanullah De Sondy, head of Study of Religions and Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at UCC

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