Saturday 22 July 2017

Lifting the veil on Ireland's fastest-growing religion

Liza Caulfield
Liza Caulfield
A man holds a child that survived from under rubble, after what activists claim was five air strikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Douma
John Meagher

John Meagher

Isis atrocities are having an impact way beyond the Middle East. Just ask those Irish Muslims who have to contend with Islamaphobia.

Lorraine O'Connor has had to get used to the "go back to where you come from" taunts. They occur more frequently than she cares to think about - on the street, in the park, at the supermarket.

But the Dubliner who proudly wears the Muslim headscarf, the hijab, every day never lets a verbal attack go unanswered. "I say to them 'I'm from Coolock. Where are you from?' You should see the look on their faces. They weren't expecting to have abused an Irish woman."

Lorraine converted to Islam 17 years ago at a time when Muslim numbers in Ireland were in the thousands rather than the tens of thousands of today. "There are definitely more of us now," she says. "And more and more Irish people are finding that Islam is what they have been searching for."

The immigration of the Celtic Tiger years helped swell numbers to an estimated 65,000 (the 2011 Census lists the number of Muslims here at 49,204) but so too has the numbers of Irish who are now converting. Muslim leaders here insist that as many as 500 Irish are embracing Islam each year. "Like me, people are looking for a simple message and Islam provides that," Lorraine says.

The mother of four daughters - "they all wear the hijab, by choice" - is steeped in the country's new Islamic tradition. She is the founder of the Muslim Sisters of Éire - a group where like-minded Muslim women go swimming or for picnics together - while her husband, Abdul Haseeb, is the "project co-ordinator" of the Clongriffin Mosque development. If completed, this north Dublin mosque and conference centre will be the biggest of its type in Ireland with the capability of accommodating 3,000 people.

"When I converted to Islam, my family and friends were supportive and I would say that the majority of Irish people have a live-and-let live attitude to Muslims," Lorraine says. "But there are people on the street who think it's OK to shout 'terrorist' at a Muslim, for instance, or to assume that the behaviour of fundamentalists abroad is in some way supported by Muslims here."

She is also bothered by Islamaphobia of a more low-level variety, including those liberals who believe that the modest dress expected of devout Muslim women is a form of male oppression. "It's Western women who are oppressed," she says. "They feel they have to be size zeroes and show off as much skin as possible. I feel very liberated that I wear the hijab and those of my friends who wear the burka [the full head-dress covering everything except the eyes] also feel liberated. They are comfortable with who they are and they don't feel they have to conform to western norms."

It's a view shared by another Irish convert, Liza Caulfield, who is now known by her Muslim name Aishah. "I wear it because it's a sign of my devotion to God," she told the Irish Independent recently. "It shows humility with my husband and with the male members of my family. It's a way of sharing your faith with people, of saying: 'Don't be afraid of us - we're all human, we all come and go the one way'.

"I always dressed modestly. I was never comfortable with showing the figure off. We're living in a society where people feel threatened because I choose to not show my body, whereas you have girls as young as 11 or 12 looking at Rihanna. She has a video and she's barely covering her nipples. And there are ladies twerking and pole-dancing. Girls are looking at that and going: 'Yeah, I'm going to get a husband if I do that.' You should be valued for your soul and your personality, not because of how much flesh you show - that's private, and that's your beauty."

Thanks to the hijab, women tend to be more readily identified as Muslim than their male counterparts and that has made them more susceptible to Islamaphobia. James Carr from the University of Limerick has extensively researched discrimination against Muslims in Ireland and notes that a greater proportion of females to males suffer abuse. "I visited 14 towns and cities in Ireland as part of this work and found that 44pc of Muslim women said they experienced hostility directed to them as a result of their faith as opposed to 28pc of Muslim men.

"While men get called 'terrorist' and 'suicide bomber', women are sometimes called 'Osama's wife'. I spoke to two younger Muslim women who had been physically attacked by a group of young men. They had been approached by the group and asked if they were upset that their father was dead - they were referring to Bin Laden because this happened in the days following his death."

Carr says the abuse tends to be verbal but it can go beyond that too. "People have had bottles thrown at them and women have had their hijab pulled from their faces.

"Another thing that I often hear is the sense that many Muslim people do not feel as though their identity is valued in Irish society. You also find Irish people who have converted to Islam have difficulty being accepted by other Irish people, some of whom taunt them with the 'terrorist' line."

Since the beheading of American journalist James Foley at the hands of Isis jihadists, some Muslim men in Ireland have experienced a heightened rise in the abuse. Two north African men who worship each day at the Dublin Mosque on the city's South Circular Road agreed to speak to Weekend Review on the condition of anonymity.

"Most people are good to me," one says. "But every single day I get called a terrorist by someone, usually someone in a car who pulls over as I walk down the street. It has got a lot worse this year because of Isis and it's particularly bad now that they are executing Western people.

"I am a man of peace and I abhor what Isis is doing, but some people are looking at these fundamentalists and thinking that all Muslims are like that. And nothing could be further from the truth."

His friend says he has been asked straight out if he agrees with Isis practice by members of the public.

"People have stopped me in the street and asked if I will condemn the murders. They are almost surprised when I say 'of course I do' - Isis are barbarians who do not represent all true Muslims and, what's more, it is mainly other Muslims who they are killing. What is very worrying though is the fact that this organisation seems to be able to reach out to disaffected Muslims in the West as we can all see on the news when we hear this guy 'Jihad John' speak."

Interpol believes up to 25 Irish jihadis may have joined the ranks of Isis at present, but one of Ireland's Muslim leaders, Dr Ali Selim, insists that "every effort" is being made to ensure that impressionable, disaffected young Irish Muslims are not seduced by the organisation's sophisticated propaganda.

"The actions of Isis are reprehensible and cannot be justified in any way. They have caused huge damage to how Muslims are perceived around the world and their use of the phrase 'Islamic State' is an outrage."

Dr Selim insists that the Muslims he meets every day are appalled by the actions and hope that non-Muslims can see that "the behaviour of these extremists bears no relation to the lives of Muslims here".

He says Irish people have been "very accepting" of the Muslim way of life which has been borne out in the international surveys that point to this country as one of the most tolerant in the world for being Muslim.

"Your country never invaded anywhere else and your people have emigrated for many years," he says.

"People here are welcoming because they themselves may have gone to make a living in another country or seen a loved one emigrate and know how challenging it can be.

"For those who are fearful, don't be: we come in peace."

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