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Being Muslim in Barbados: an exclusive interview with Suleiman Bulbulia

The Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association responds to recent reactions to a Muslim association’s housing development in Barbados, and speaks more generally to the place of Muslims in Barbados

AMG EXCLUSIVE: BARBADOS

What is the place of Muslims in Barbados? We speak to the Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association to get a response to the brewing controversy over the local Muslim community’s decision to build a housing development on the island.

The power of the media to shape and influence public perceptions comes with great responsibility.

When AMG decided to cover reactions to the Barbados Nation’s mischaracterisation of a residential community being built by a group of Muslims, we attempted to insert balance into a dialogue that was becoming increasingly ugly.

We also came up on ethical questions: is it newsworthy that small pockets of Barbados were spewing ugly, reactionary, Islamophobic comments online, even if – generally – these comments are not representative of Barbados as a whole? And how does a responsible media organization give light to this issue, while not defaming Barbados on the actions of a few?

Would covering the story give more oxygen to a negative flame, and should it be left alone to die as fracases often do?

In the final analysis, we determined that it was not the media’s place to determine the point at which oppressive and stigmatizing rhetoric is problematic enough to report. We also appreciated that blogs and social media, and the viral nature of citizen-generated content, were at times more impactful than old-school media in shaping perceptions of reality. Counter-balances are often necessary for the sake of objectivity and informed dialogue.

Muslims in Barbados are not building “exclusive” neighbourhoods or fencing out Christians and Jews, but the Muslim community’s attempts to clarify this have not been given even a fraction of the publicity caused by the original – and inaccurate – media report.

In light of this, we interviewed Suleiman Bulbulia, Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association, to clear the air on this issue, and to speak generally on the place and role of the Muslim community in Barbados.

 

Interview with Suleiman Bulbulia

AMG: Did you anticipate the negative reactions to the media coverage of the new community? How has the association been dealing with this?

SB picture 2We hoped there would not have been any negative fallout but felt that, depending on how the story was written, it would make a difference to public perception of the project.  We were at pains requesting the reporter not to sensationalize the story.

The story was by and large accurate of the project, but the opening line was wrong and we believe this created the furore. The line which stated “exclusively for Muslims” was inaccurate and we did not at any point in the interview tell the reporter that it was.

On speaking to the reporter after the story was carried, she said she “assumed it was” [exclusive] after we told her that plots were bought by Muslims.

We have sought to deal with the fallout via a letter to the media explaining that it is not an exclusive project, we have done radio interviews as well as television interviews.  On social media we have also commented in the comment threads, and several other persons outside the Association have also lent their support by commenting.

 AMG: Why did An-Noor and the BMA choose to go public with the news of the new development being built? 

 We did not go to the press, they came to us. This project has been in the making for close to two years. The Nation reporter called and said she has been receiving calls regarding the project and was going to do a story.  Not wishing to have a story devoid of the facts, we agreed to have the reporter visit the site and interview the Association’s head, Mr. Pandor, and take pictures.

AMG: You alluded to misrepresentations in the original media story. Having now seen how the media handled the story, and having observed the reactions to it, where do you think the major misunderstandings lie?

The major misunderstanding lies in the line which states: “exclusively for Muslims”.

“The project is in no way intended to be exclusive, no covenant exists that prevents any race, religion, or other criteria from purchasing a plot in the development, or further renting a property if an owner builds a rental unit”– Suleiman Bulbulia

The quote regarding “Barbadians have nothing to fear” was in response to the reporter’s [unprinted] question “should Barbadians have anything to fear from Muslims?” I’m not sure why the reporter felt the need to ask such a question.

The fact that all the lots were purchased by Muslims shouldn’t be an issue.  In fact some lots are for resale with signage up advertising such. Anyone can go there and get the number and make an offer to the owner.

The other point which was not in the article but alluded to by several commentators wrongfully is that it will be a gated community.  The developers were adamant from day one that the project will not be gated. [There will be] easy access in and out anytime.

AMG: What would you say to those who claimed that building this community is exclusionary and racist? Do you feel like there is any merit at all to the perception that the Muslim community segregates itself?

There is no merit whatsoever to these claims.  Muslims have been in Barbados for over 100 years and our track record of a positive contribution to the Barbadian society is there for all to see. Because Muslims choose to live in close proximity to a mosque should not be an issue.

Other faiths in many parts of the world do likewise and similarly many minority groups in many parts of the world tend to live close to each other.  West Indians in New York, Canada and United Kingdom are real examples of this.  The community cannot be racist as several races have bought plots in the development.

AMG: Why the need for this new residential community? What is the thinking behind it, and do you have plans for additional communities?

This new residential community is actually a last resort.

“The main purpose is to have a mosque in good proximity to the families living in the surrounding area.  If we could have gotten a mosque without the housing component we would have gladly done so” – Suleiman Bulbulia

For many years Muslims in the Clermont and surrounding areas have been trying to get Planning permission for a mosque in the area.  There are over fifty Muslim families in the area.

All lots that were identified as a possible suitable location for a mosque were denied permission on the grounds that it was considered in a residential area. We understand that even Churches in the area were facing the same dilemma.

And this was confirmed to me by a friend, Dr Nigel Taylor, Head of the Barbados Evangelical Association, who called me recently to get a clarification on our issue and to offer his support.  He also mentioned that their Churches faced the same problem of getting planning permission in the area.

When this five-acre lot came up for sale it was suggested that we can acquire it as a housing/prayer space development as permission could be granted for such.  We pursued that option and so this project came into being.

There are no plans for additional communities.

AMG: Was any official reason given for the reported denial of the call to prayer?

In fact, the developers made the decision not to have the call to prayer amplified.  So it was not a question of denial or approval, it just wasn’t going to happen.

Eid prayer Barbados 2014-
AMG: Are there, in your opinion, any similar communities in Barbados?

Not like this one in the Muslim community.  We have had for over 60 years Muslims living around the mosque in Fontabelle, and for the last 20 years close to the mosque in Belleville.  But these two locations evolved over time to be like that.

“I noted very recently a news item that the Anglican Community did a housing development in St. Philip that wasn’t fully subscribed to by its membership, and it was advertising plots for sale”

In other communities there are gated developments based on some criteria, I suspect, of having access to living there.

In the past , I am sure, many homes were built in close proximity to the churches or vice versa. Barbados does have luxury enclaves in the form of Marinas and Golf courses.  The Spiritual Baptists are known to have large expanses of land in Christ Church, possibly obtained over years.

AMG: A theme in the online reactions has been a differentiation between “Muslim” and “Barbadian”, seemingly implying that there is a religious identity to Barbadian nationality. How do you respond to this?

A lot of that reaction is based on ignorance and prejudice.  A simple survey of the vast majority of Muslims in Barbados as to how they see themselves will reveal that the majority, if not all, see themselves as Barbadian and Muslim.

Musx

 “The reality is that many of the forefathers of the population in the Caribbean who came as slaves were possibly Muslim.Their faith is Islam and their nationality Barbadian.”

AMG: Does your association, generally, experience Islamophobic sentiment in Barbados? If so, what do you think is driving this?

We don’t generally experience it. Usually it will raise its ugly head when there are issues like these or some international occurrence which the media highlights.

Driving this is probably a vocal minority who by and large may not be Barbadian but persons living here and who have their own axe to grind.

I definitely think there is a need for greater public education on Islam, Muslims and specifically the faith and the followers in Barbados.

“Social media has helped to bring out more persons and their opinions, positive and negative, although usually very negative”

Islamophobia has not been common but increases when these issues come up.

International incidences involving “Muslims” usually highlighted by the mass media help create an environment of fear, prejudice and xenophobia.

AMG: Would you say that Barbados is socially divided? 

In my opinion there exist, to some extent, divisions along class, race, religious lines, and also nationality.  Perhaps not easily observable but there is.

AMG: Any parting words?

The reaction to this project has certainly bought several issues to the fore.

“How do we as a Barbadian society see ourselves in an ever changing world?  How do we interact, accommodate, respect and tolerate other persons of varying faiths, ethnicities and races as they seek to live their lives here in Barbados among others?”

Do we judge others on the basis of ignorance and prejudice?  The Muslim community has demonstrated its commitment, through hard work, sacrifice, thrift, pride and industry, to the development of Barbados from the very first known Muslim who arrived on these shores.

No Muslim to date has bought shame to Barbados.  Judge us by these criteria, not the actions of so-called “Muslims” in other parts of the world who act contrary to the teachings of their faith.  Barbados has been a fair, tolerant society. We live here and practice our faith without hindrance or interference.

We wish our future generations to be able to do the same.  We have no sinister motives in any of our actions. We simply carry on our lives seeking the pleasure of our Creator, living our lives in peace with our neighbors and the rest of society and working so that we can provide for our families and give back to the society around us.

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News Desk

Working with Caribbean media partners, we go behind the news to deliver impartial, evidence-based reports on issues that impact residents, governments and investors in over 21 Caribbean territories. Contact us at editor@antillean.org.

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