Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A hatred based on ignorance

This time last week, I attended a Muslim festival.

A local school about 2km from where I was staying had been completely taken over by colourful food stalls, clothes stalls, children’s amusements, and temporary concert venues.

There were about 400 islanders milling about the place – and maybe ten tourists.

The welcome we received was incredible. Villagers were dressed to the nines for the three day festival and had a huge welcome for the two big Irishmen who arrived on motorcycles to see what all the fuss was about.

Koh Lanta is a pretty unique place. It had no electricity until 1997 and, before the tourists arrived, the population was a mixture of Muslim villagers and sea gypsies.

It’s been developed at an incredible rate since I first landed on Saladan pier 15 years ago, but still retains the kind of charm which has seen Thai Buddhist, Muslim, gypsy, Chinese and ‘farang’ (white foreign) immigrants live side-by-side in harmony for the past two decades.

My travelling companion had never been to Asia before and was blown away by the welcome of the ordinary people we met during a fortnight on the island, which has a popluation of about 30,000.

As we browsed through the market, people invited us to check out the home-made fare on offer. A young woman offered us a cup of tea, not looking for a cent in return.

The language barrier did not seem to matter, people genuinely wanted us to check out local hand-made goods and home-cooked foods, to make sure we were having a good time.

We had some wonderful banter with a group of young lads when I decided to buy a Liverpool FC beach towel and enjoyed sampling some of the local dishes as we made our way around the festival site.

This being 2016, the era of the mobile phone, we were able to meet a couple from home in the island’s only Irish bar a couple of hours later.

Long Beach, Koh Lanta
But, that night, so many of our preconceptions were blown away. 

We saw that ordinary Muslims love to dress up for special occasions, like most people do, and that the locals have a huge welcome for foreigners despite how much tourism has changed their island over the past two decades.

Even within Thailand, Koh Lanta is a special place. For over a decade now, Muslim separatists have been battling Thai Government forces in three of the nation’s southern provinces, but those hostilities have never reached the islanders on the Andaman Sea.

The warmth we experienced at that festival – even though we could have felt completely out of place – got us to thinking about people like Donald Trump and the irrational fear of the Muslim world they are trying to spread across the globe.

People like Trump don't want us to visit Koh Lanta or Malaysia, to see that ordinary Muslims are just like us, with hopes and dreams for peaceful, happy lives. That doesn't fit the current narrative.

A few days later, at the end of a fantastic holiday, I found myself back in wet and dreary Dublin only to be told that a new Islamophobic group called Pegida was about to hold their first public meeting in Ireland.

I was too jet-lagged to attend the counter-demonstration as I made my way home to Galway, but it was awful to think that people with racist or even fascist ideas were assembling in the capital of my country.

Ireland, more than any other country, has sent so many of its people away to live all across the globe and now people want to close our borders to troubled people who are fleeing persecution and slaughter in countries such as Syria and Iraq.

Thankfully, very few turned up to support the extremists' cause on Saturday.

I’ve seen the images of the clashes on social media and it’s clear that the fascists were put in their place.

The few who turned up were even chased by anti-fascists into a two euro store, as a large crowd chanted "Fascist scum off our streets".

For me, racism is based on ignorance.

The welcome my friend and I experienced from local Muslims on Koh Lanta last week was in complete contrast to the Islamophobia which seems to be sweeping across Europe and the US at the moment.

Instead of blaming the refugees for our nations’ ills, we should ask why our leaders are bombing the hell out of their countries and why so many have been displaced from their lands.

It’s a pity that the demonstration in Dublin ended in violence and that the Gardai drew their batons on the protesters.

It would be better if children could be brought along to an anti-fascist rally and that people could celebrate diversity in peace, harmony, and with a sense of fun.

Just as the lovely people on a Thai island made us feel so welcome 10,000kms from home.

The violence was regrettable. But at least the Islamophobes got the message that they are not wanted in this of all nations, the one which has exported so many of its people through good and bad times.



1 comment:

  1. Totally agree with you Koh Lanta is such a special place I hope it never changes I always feel safe and welcomed there. Wish I was there now.