The title of this post relates to a (probably apocryphal) story from Northern Ireland in which a group of young lads stop a man who is walking down the street and asked him in a threatening way, “are you a Protestant or a Catholic?”
The man responds by pointing out that he is actually from Iran and is in fact 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” became markers of fixed political and tribal identity. Something the joke plays on in bringing to light how we can think that our issues are the same as those faced by others in the rest of the world.
This can also be seen in the story of an Indian man coming to Belfast to visit friends. While in a bar one night he strikes up a conversation with a local who asks him where he’s from.
“I’m from Delhi,” replies the man
In response the local leans over and whispers in his ear,
“Watch yourself mate, round here we call it Londondelhi’
The joke plays on the fact that there is a city in Northern Ireland that is either called “Derry” or “Londonderry” depending upon your political stance. One of the ways one can to work out whether you are a friend or an enemy is to find out which you call it.
In typical Northern Irish humor the joke is on us. Each of the stories arose to remind us how easy it is to think that the political situation we are dealing with is one that the rest of the world is involved with.
While it is true that the underlying dynamics and antagonisms are the same (scapegoating, oppressors, oppressed, structural injustice etc.) the actual way that these play out depends upon a rich matrix of historical factors unique to a given situation.
Indeed when people from outside Northern Ireland come in to try and help with sectarianism the results are often embarrassing at best and damaging at worst. I remember one particularly bad example when an Australian activist came over with thousands of bumper stickers that read, “Jesus: Friend of sinners, drunkards and Republicans.” A sticker that was problematic on so many levels (the word “Republican” broadly refers to someone who is prepared to take up arms to fight for a united Ireland, as opposed to a Loyalist who is prepared to take up arms to keep the North a part of the UK).
It generally takes people who have grown up in a society, who know the situation and who have a respect borne of growing up there to make real change happen.
Because of this it might seem that “outsiders” to our struggles are not needed, however the genuine multicultural experience remains an important one. For in it we first look at the other through our eyes and judge them, but then we glimpse how we might look through their eyes and judge ourselves.
It thus not only helps us see that other people are dealing with different issues, but can also help us to gain some new perspectives on our own.
So instead of making people from a different place feel like the Iranian visiting Belfast in the opening story perhaps the task is to see the other as coming from a different place that might expose something important about our own place, if only we can really listen to them.