The Irish Muslims who mourn Bin Laden
Gemma O'Doherty reports on the very mixed reaction among the Islamic community here to the killing of the al-Qa'ida leader this week
Published 07/05/2011 | 05:00
Sheikh Ismail Kotwal isn't that bothered about the death of Osama bin Laden, even though he once compared the world's most wanted man to the prophet Mohammed.
The British-born imam, who runs Blackpitts mosque in Dublin's Liberties, says there are more important things in life to worry about.
Beyond supporting his home-town team Bolton Wanderers, he has little time for modern mores.
He believes women should wear the burqa. He doesn't own a television. He has no interest in the news.
But Imam Kotwal has made the headlines several times.
Last week, a US government cable released by WikiLeaks described his mosque as a "suspected gathering place for some radical elements within the Pakistani community".
Five years ago, he was the subject of a Prime Time documentary, which reported that during a religion class at De La Salle school in Dublin's Churchtown, he praised Bin Laden as "a great leader", causing two students to walk out in anger.
At the time, he accused RTE of having "evil intentions" and twisting his words. During the programme, he said bin Laden's appearance was "like prophet Mohammed -- you can see he is a good god-fearing man".
Speaking to the Weekend Review this week, he toned down that comparison, claiming the only similarity he ever saw between the two men is their facial hair.
"I said his (Bin Laden) appearance looks like prophet Mohammed because he has a beard," he said.
However radical his views, they haven't done business any harm.
Kotwal's mosque has one of the biggest congregations in the country, with more than 700 Muslims gathering there every week for Friday prayers.
This week, as the world absorbed the dramatic news of Osama bin Laden's death and nations that suffered most at the hands of his terror network remembered their dead, the imam said he was not convinced Bin Laden had anything to do with 9/11 and other atrocities.
"I have never expressed any sympathy for him or his cause," he says.
"If he was a bad guy, then he deserved to die.
"But I don't know if he or al-Qa'ida were responsible for the 9/11 bombings.
"You will not hear me celebrating his death because I don't know if he was guilty. I'm not willing to judge him."
It's a reaction that has enraged some other leaders of the Muslim church in Ireland.
Dr Ali al-Saleh, who heads a congregation of about 300 Iraqi Shi'a Muslims in Dublin's Milltown and is considered one of the most moderate voices in Irish Islam, believes the death of Bin Laden should cause jubilation among Muslims.
"From the very day he was eliminated, we should be celebrating. That man did more harm to our religion than anyone else.
"He hijacked the name of Islam for more than two decades and used it as a banner for all of his atrocities and crimes.
"Every time I have to take my shoes off at the airport, I curse Bin Laden. He brought nothing but shame and embarrassment to every Muslim."
On the northside of the city, his views are echoed by Sheikh Allama Umar Qadri who runs the Al Mustafa Islamic Cultural Centre in Blanchardstown.
"The majority of Muslims in Ireland are relieved and happy that this man's life has ended because he is responsible for so many problems in the world in the last decade.
"But there is a minority who are mourning his death, calling him a martyr and praying for him, the same people who have collected money outside Irish mosques for his cause.
"It's very sad because most Muslims trust their imam and whatever he says, they will believe.
"These people are narrow-minded and afraid that if they integrate in Irish society they will assimilate.
"After 9/11 and 7/7, there were two reactions in the Muslim world. One is that the attacks were totally wrong, that the killing of innocent people is never justified and Islam is against that.
"Then there are people who say it is nothing compared to the number of people who have been killed in Afghanistan or Iraq.
"Even though what they are saying is right, that ideology opens doors to extremism and radicalism, which we are desperately trying to stamp out."
Dr Ali al-Saleh believes particular attention must now be paid to Irish colleges and universities, where the Muslim population is growing.
"I'm very concerned that some Muslim organisations in colleges are dominated by radical thinkers who are brainwashing the minds of students.
"Where you see them holding lectures on Palestine, Gaza, Libya, you have to ask what is their motivation.
"Where we see the niqab and the burqa, that is another symbol of extremism and the repression of women.
"We want our students to concentrate on their studies and learn from the West about how to bring democracy to their countries, not to come here and become radicalised."
Last week in Britain, universities were accused by MPs and peers of allowing Islamic fundamentalism to flourish.
They blamed academics for turning a blind eye to radicals despite 'damning evidence' that Islamist extremists were brainwashing students.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Homeland Security urged the British government to tackle the issue on campuses with "utmost urgency".
In the UK, concerns arose about the fundamentalist threat in universities after the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a former student at University College London, to blow himself up using a bomb in his underpants on a plane coming into land at Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009.
Abdulmutallab, an engineering student, was the Islamic Society president from 2006 to 2007.
This week, committee members of the Islamic Society of the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, whose 2,000-strong population includes 450 Muslim medical students, were reluctant to give their opinion about the death of Osama bin Laden when contacted by the Weekend Review.
Committee member Abdulmalik Dredar, a Californian who also chairs the Irish section of FOSIS, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, a British-based organisation, said the matter was not one of concern for their society.
"We deal with things that affect us on campus. I can't say anything about it (the death of Osama bin Laden) as it's not really part of our scope.
"We do not deal with this sort of issue. It's like asking a school society about petroleum."
Vice-president Intan Nurashkin concurred.
"Basically because we are a student body, the issue of Osama bin Laden is outside our scope. I prefer not to give any opinion on this issue."
But another committee member, Malaysian Faiz Moideen, was more forthcoming, though he stressed his opinions were purely his own.
"I think his death is not true. I think it is a conspiracy by the United States. It's very hard to believe.
"I don't think Osama bin Laden exists at all. He was created by the US. I think the US government blew up the Twin Towers.
"After it was bombed they attacked Afghanistan and then moved to Iraq. Behind that they tried to get the oil and have influence in the Middle East."
In recent years, some events held by the Islamic Society in the RCSI have raised eyebrows among fellow students on campus, including one on the rules of menstruation, which was held in a college lecture hall and conducted by a male cleric.
It tackled such issues as whether Muslim women should handle the Koran during their monthly cycles and how they should behave if they have a sudden bleed during their pilgrimage to Hajj.
When the college authorities were asked about whether it was appropriate that lecture halls should be given over to discuss this sort of subject matter, they said it was perfectly within their guidelines.
"This is not a police state," says Philip Curtis, associate director of student affairs at the RCSI, which works closely with the Islamic unit of the Garda Siochana and vets all speakers coming through the Islamic Society.
"We have a large Muslim population in the college. Some would be very, very moderate, some middle of the road and others have stronger views.
"The Islamic Society in college is not allowed to publish anything in Arabic. Everything has to be in English. All lectures have to be in English.
"We do not allow female students to wear the burqa. Have we ever stopped outside speakers organised by the society from coming into the college? Yes. We don't allow students to organise any activities that we believe stray into those darker areas."