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'There's a real fear factor now - and a tidal wave of abuse'

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Fear: Ibrahim Noonan, at the Maryam Mosque in Galway, says Imams must condemn the jihadists. Photo: Andrew Downes

Fear: Ibrahim Noonan, at the Maryam Mosque in Galway, says Imams must condemn the jihadists. Photo: Andrew Downes

Andrew Downes

Fear: Ibrahim Noonan, at the Maryam Mosque in Galway, says Imams must condemn the jihadists. Photo: Andrew Downes

Ibrahim Noonan was opening the door of the Maryam Mosque in Galway city when a bottle smashed off the wall, narrowly missing him. Noonan - the Imam, or leader, of the newly opened mosque close to Ballybrit Racecourse - turned to find a man standing there looking for confrontation.

"I walked up to him and asked him why he had thrown the bottle," he says, recalling the incident that took place not long after the mosque opened last September. "He was taking aback when he heard my Irish accent and after five minutes of talking, he apologised. I told him if he had a problem with Muslims he was welcome to come into the Mosque and get his feelings off his chest and not resort to throwing bottles."

Luckily for the Waterford cleric who converted to Islam from Catholicism at 23, such displays of anti-Muslim feeling are rare in Ireland, but he still has to contend with verbal abuse on a regular basis.

"I'm easily identifiable as Muslim," Noonan says, "due to my long beard and style of dress and I do get a lot of abuse thrown at me, not just here in Galway but in Dublin and Limerick too. Barbaric acts carried out in the name of Islam around the world have definitely stoked up a feeling of anger in people and unfortunately ordinary Irish Muslims are having to bear the brunt of that sometimes."

The Imam shares the revulsion felt by fellow Irish people in the wake of Wednesday's terrorist attack in Paris, and he is worried that such violence "in the name of Islam" will make life "more difficult" for ordinary Irish Muslims. "After all the Isis atrocities of the past year and the attack in Sydney comes this terrible attack and that is helping to change the way some people regard Muslims. There's a real fear factor now - and a tidal wave of abuse."

Noonan says his own father, who is Catholic, can struggle to reconcile the acts perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists with the creed of his son. "After Sydney happened, he said to me, 'How do you explain this?' And I can understand where he's coming from because a lot of people don't understand it. It's setting us back 20 years.

"Ordinary, law-abiding Muslims are incredibly frustrated by radicals, such as those in Paris, who are tearing apart the very fabric of what we teach. We feel we are up against a brick wall and the awful thing is that you just know it won't stop here: there are bound to be similar attacks elsewhere."

Imam Noonan is part of the Ahmadiyya strand of the Islam (the Shia and Sunni sects are far better known in the public mind) and is regarded as one of the country's more forthright Muslim leaders.

"I believe all Imam should stand up and condemn the actions of jihadists but some are afraid," he says. "I am not afraid to do so, but that does not mean I am not concerned that by condemning violence in the name of Islam that I am leaving myself open to attack on the street some day."

Noonan is married to a Pakistani woman and the couple have five children, four boys aged between 16 and 22 and a girl, aged 13.

"They have experienced problems because of their faith," he says. "My daughter is beginning to be a bit concerned wearing the hijab and one of my boys who loves to play hurling had to contend with another player telling him he wasn't Irish."

Despite such experiences, the Imam says many of his country-people are very accepting of Muslims and can see that there is "no connection between faith and the acts of extremists".

It is a sentiment that one of the country's leading Muslim academics is keen to accentuate. Dr Ali Salem, head of the Islamic Cultural Centre in Dublin, says he does not anticipate tension between Muslims and other people here in the wake of the Paris killings.

"Ireland is the best country in Europe in which to be Muslim," he says. "Irish people are very tolerant and much of that tolerance may be down to the fact that they know what it is like to be persecuted for the crimes of a small few. It is not so long ago that Irish people had a difficult experience in the UK because of the actions of paramilitaries.

"To think that Muslims here could have any connection to events such as that in Paris is like saying all Irish people were responsible for the acts of the IRA. It is our experience that Irish people are very welcoming and they have no difficulty separating the actions of extremists from the day-to-day lives of ordinary Muslims."

While Ireland does not have a history of racial and/or religious conflict to compare with that of France or Britain over the past half century, international police force Interpol indicated last year that up to 25 Irish people were thought to have joined extremists such as Isis. Dr Salem disputes this figure and rubbishes talk of Islamic terrorist cells cultivating in Ireland. "The community is too small," he says. "We would know."

But Imam Noonan is not so sure. "Ten years ago, I would have thought that the prospect of fundamentalists coming from Ireland or perhaps committing an atrocity here to be remote," he says.

"Now, I think there's a far greater chance of that happening. Radicalism is happening all over the world and some terrorist organisations are tapping into the disaffected youth of today."

He says it would be naïve to think that their murderous message wasn't reaching some Muslim youths in Ireland.

Noonan believes Muslims in Ireland can play their part in ensuring that relations between them and non-believers is improved. "We hold open days at the Mosque and stand outside the GPO in Dublin every week to answer any question that people might have," he says.

"Tolerance from us is essential. I am offended by cartoons of Mohammed with a bomb on his head or kissing a man - of course these images hurt my feelings - but Muslims have to be tolerant about such things. There is no other way."

Islam Ireland

For more than 20 years, Islam has been, comfortably, the fastest-growing religion in Ireland. There are an estimated 65,000 Muslims here now; in 1991, they numbered just 4,000.

It is thought that by 2020, there will be more than 100,000 Muslims in this country.

An estimated two-thirds of the current number are either born in this country or are 'naturalised' Irish.

The number of mosques to cater for such rapidly increasing figures has gone up dramatically too: there are 52 in the Republic at present with more to open in the next couple of months.

It was as recent as 1976 when the first mosque opened in Ireland (Dublin).

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