Are You a Protestant Muslim or a Catholic Muslim?

posted 30/5/13

The title of this post relates to a (probably apocryphal) story from Northern Ireland in which a group of lads stop a man who’s walking down the street and ask him in a threatening way, “are you a Protestant or a Catholic?”

The man responds by pointing out that he’s actually from Iran and is a Muslim.

“That’s all very well,” replies one of the youths, “but are you a Protestant Muslim or a Catholic Muslim?”

In Northern Ireland the terms “Protestant” and “Catholic” are used as markers of fixed political and tribal identity (inaccurate though they are). This is something the joke plays on to show how we can assume that our concrete local issues are universal.

This can also be seen in the story of an Indian coming to Belfast to visit friends. While in a bar one night she strikes up a conversation with a local who asks her where she’s from.

“I’m from Delhi,” replies the woman

In response the local leans over and whispers in her ear,

“Watch yourself, round here we call it Londondelhi”

The joke plays on the fact that there’s a city in Northern Ireland that is either called “Derry” or “Londonderry” depending upon your political stance. One of the ways people work out whether you’re a friend or enemy is to find out which you call it.

Each of the above stories remind us how easy it is to think that the political situation we’re dealing with is one that the rest of the world is involved with. Or that the political terms that make sense in our context map onto other contexts in a straightforward way.

While it’s true that the underlying dynamics and antagonisms in different political situations are similar (scapegoating, oppressors, oppressed, structural injustice, economic problems etc.) the actual way these play out depends on a rich matrix of historical factors unique to a given situation.

When people from outside Northern Ireland speak into the situation the results are often embarrassing at best and damaging at worst. It generally takes people who’ve grown up in a given society, who know the context and who’ve a respect borne from growing up there to make real and lasting change happen.

People from other contexts do remain important, not least because they can help widen our horizon a little and gain new perspectives. Not so much through their conceptual frames (which act as Procrustean beds upon which the given situation is cut or stretched), but through learning about their situations.

As an alien to a foreign country I’ve occasionally had the surreal experience of being treated like the Iranian in Belfast. While I’m keen to learn the political situation in the US, my political interests remain tied to the complex and difficult situation back home.

3 Responses to Are You a Protestant Muslim or a Catholic Muslim?

  1. LMC says:

    Nice post. I have decided that you, among many other great writers and thinkers are definitely on my panel of study partners for my projects and theological studies, thanks ;)

  2. Francis Farvis says:

    I guess men of Sodom did worse, than asking such a question. Wonder what a peacemaker does there? what a peacedoer makes there? What a darkness comes with hatred! It looked like it was said, “I am peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” Nothing, nothing, nothing happens, without forgiveness. And one may still die. The greatest judgement is not future, but past; in the same place where God’s grace is most shown; at the outrageous death inflicted on, and received by, Jesus of Nazareth. Ignore that grace, and God’s anger is stirred up the most, like a trillion people’s deaths. Yes, I know my failures, as to hatred and opposing anger and bitterness. My hope is not in myself (doomed, if I took my own stand), neither is my way. I cannot straighten out myself. Only that man is the goal of history; chiefest of 10,000, altogether lovely. I have no hope in myself, no light at all in myself, but utter darkness; no release from this prison I’m stuck in, unless he gives it. Yet someone I can speak of, trusting God in situation after situation, brought and led along a way not seeing, has known peace and amazement even in surroundings of persistent hatred and insults and slander.

  3. Joseph says:

    Mr. Rollins,

    First off, I have enjoyed reading your books and online postings. I can’t say I always understand or agree with your views but I find them refreshing and they challenge me. I appreciate that.

    You wrote:

    “When people from outside Northern Ireland speak into the situation the results are often embarrassing at best and damaging at worst. It generally takes people who’ve grown up in a given society, who know the context and who’ve a respect borne from growing up there to make real and lasting change happen.”

    There was recently a very, very ugly ‘discussion’ on your Twitter page about this very subject. I think a lot of social media, especially Twitter, is the lowest-common-denominator of communication, so I don’t expect much, but as an American, I was frankly embarrassed by this exchange.

    I feel the need to apologize for that person’s actions. It hurt my soul to read such hateful and ignorant comments. To see someone who is passionate about Christian theology yet also completely ignorant of this (N. Ireland) subject matter acting in such a wicked and self-righteous manner – it was shameful.

    I am not a learned man and I come from a small, podunk town in the American South. But I know better than that. We all should. I’m sure it’s not the first time, but I’m sorry you had to deal with that. In the future please, please do not engage and help fuel such stupidity. It makes us all (Christian/atheist, American/Irish, male/female) look bad.

    Blessings,

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