What is it like to grow up Muslim in Ireland?

We ask a group about their experiences of racism, acceptance and Irishness

University students talk about growing up Muslim in Ireland, Islamophobia and choosing to wear the hijab. Video: Kathleen Harris

 

They are an upcoming generation of Irish Muslims – probably the first to have grown up in Ireland in significant numbers.

After several members of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies attended a seminar in Dublin last October on Muslims in the media, we invited a number of the contributors into The Irish Times to tell us what it’s like to be young and Muslim in Ireland today. All are Sunni Muslims and went to school in Dublin or Meath, and are all now in third-level education.

Although they worry about their future, many intend to stay in Ireland and contribute to social, community and business life in the country. This, they say, is a new phenomenon among Irish Muslims.

The panel

Marwan Akari, the 21-year-old chairman of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, is in his final year of structural engineering at University College Dublin. His parents were refugees from Libya. Akari was born in Jordan and came to Ireland when he was two. He went to several primary schools, including the Muslim National School from second class. His secondary school was St Benildus College, in Kilmacud in Dublin.

Hannah Abushaban is a 17-year-old student of economics, politics and law at Dublin City University. Her parents come from Palestine; she was born in England and came to Ireland at the age of three. She went to North Dublin Muslim National School, in Cabra, then an Educate Together school in Blanchardstown. Her secondary school was Coláiste Pobail Setanta, on the Dublin-Meath border in Clonee.

Aisha Siwar is 18 and studying physics with biomedical sciences at Dublin City University. Her mother is Irish, her father Moroccan. She was born in Ireland. Aisha’s primary education was in the Muslim national school, Navan Road, Dublin, Ladyswell in Mulhuddart, Educate Together in Blanchardstown and Kildalkey school in Co Meath.

Yara Alagha, a 19-year-old languages student at UCD, is “Palestinian as well” and was born in Ireland. She went to St Paul’s primary and secondary schools in Greenhills in Dublin.

Houssam Belfedhel is a 19-year-old student at the National College of Ireland. His parents are from Algeria; he has been in Ireland since he was born. He went to the Muslim National School, in Clonskeagh in Dublin, then to De La Salle College in Churchtown in Dublin, for his secondary education.

Schooldays: “I didn’t wear the hijab then but they still knew us as ‘the Muslim girls’ ”

Houssam: In primary school I didn’t face any issues, because it was full of Muslims.

Marwan: I had no problem getting into [St Benildus], but my younger brothers were not accepted even though I had two older brothers at the school. Other people had higher preference. So one is in school in Bray and the other one is in Rathmines.

Yara: Me and my sister and another girl were the only Muslims in the school. I didn’t wear the hijab then [since going to college she does], but they still knew us as “the Muslim girls”.

Aisha: My mum went to the school’s board of management and said I would be wearing the hijab. The school was really nervous; I was not just the first hijabi but generally the first person considered foreign going to the school, but my experience was generally positive. When you sat down and explained they just saw me the same as any other student. I think it was the parents who were afraid more than anybody else.

My mother is a revert – born Catholic but became Muslim a few years after she met my dad – so she remembers the struggles of when she put on the hijab.

Hannah: Ever since I was younger I promised myself I’d wear the hijab in college. In secondary school people used say, “When are you going to wear it?”

Yara: [Since I started wearing the hijab] you get the odd person shouting stuff at you on the street. I’ve had friends who’ve had the headscarf pulled off them. “Paki” is a popular insult, for some reason. When I was a child “Paki” was a big one. Or, “There’s a bomb there.” Just immature things I never take on board. Normally it’s a gang of people, guys. Students, which really surprised me.

Hannah: I’ve never experienced anything like that. So far.

Racism: “I’ve seen girls’ headscarves being pulled off"

Marwan: There were a few incidents at my secondary school – isolated, and once again immaturity was involved. There was some passive racism as well, in terms of the way you’re treated because you’re Muslim: people not wanting to hang around with you as much. In my school there were about four or five Muslims, a very small number of us.

Racist occurrences were isolated and minor, though there were instances when teachers made remarks. I had one teacher – I actually reported it to the principal – where I was just playing around with another guy in my class and the teacher told the other guy: “Don’t play around with him or he’s going to blow you up.” It was brushed under the carpet. There was another incident when one of my teachers said, “For Halloween I’m going to wear a burka.”

In third level I’ve had nothing at all, but I’ve heard of a lot of incidences of girls being racially attacked.

Houssam: Girls receive more abuse, because they’re more visible. You can see them on the street walking around. Whereas when you’re a boy you’re not sure whether he’s Muslim or not until you see him praying or doing something odd.

I get the number 7 bus from the Spire to the National College of Ireland, and numerous times I’ve seen girls’ headscarves being pulled off.

A few weeks ago on Talbot Street I saw a drunk man pull a girl’s headscarf off. Obviously the man was in an intoxicated state, but it’s still not an excuse to let it go by. And people were just watching. Where is their humanity, never mind your religion?

I went up to him and pushed him to the ground and said, “I’m Muslim. If you want to attack, why don’t you come to me?” He cursed and walked off.

Tolerance: “We’re lucky in that Ireland doesn’t condone racism”

Marwan: We definitely feel a lot more comfortable than in Britain or France.

Yara: Irish people are more accepting than other countries. When I started wearing the headscarf, for example, I was really nervous. I remember going in that day, and everyone was extra nice because they knew the struggles and were accepting of it.

Yesterday me, my sister and my friend [who all wear the headscarf] were in a shop buying coffee, and the guy turned around and gave us all free chocolate bars. We were thinking maybe it was because we were Muslim and he was being extra nice to us.

I have found that people go out of their way to be extra nice. I think that’s instilled in Irish culture; hospitality is really important.

Marwan: I had an interesting incident yesterday. I was walking home, and I was walking by one of the pubs on the way to the Luas. A drunk man walks out and goes like this to my shoulder [slaps], “You’re a good man, a good man,” and just walks back in. It was because he obviously saw that I was Muslim. He was really nice for absolutely no reason.

Our parents would be positive about the Irish people. It has been said that because of the Irish peoples’ experiences during the IRA campaign they are more understanding of how Muslim people feel.

Yara: That has been said, especially in relation to the Palestinian cause. Any Palestinian event I’ve been to, the majority of people are Irish, and they can empathise with us [Palestinians], because essentially they’ve been through the same thing. I think that applies to any minority in the country.

Aisha: Irish people seem to grow more tolerant with years. My [Irish] grandparents were so uncomfortable in the beginning. Now they’re talking to me about the Ibrahim Halawa case, saying things like, “This is so bad. Wwhat’s happening to him? The Irish Government is doing nothing.” Whereas 10 years ago they’d probably have said, “What was he doing, exactly, in an unstable country?” I remember more racism 10 years ago than I see now.

We’ve all had negative experiences. One of my friends was attacked in a shopping centre. The attacker was extremely drunk, trying to pull off her hijab and hitting her. She was really badly beaten and quite shaken up afterwards. But then she said this was just one drunk man versus everybody else.

Marwan: Ibrahim Halawa has been one of my best friends from maybe before primary school. We actually came to Ireland at the same time. He was someone I used to go to his house when I was younger. His situation is something all the community can agree on, something we can unite around.

Houssam: The poor guy is not getting any support in Egypt. A lot of Irish people, the MEP Lynn Boylan, she’s really involved in it. The Irish people have given him their support, but a lot more needs to be done.

Marwan: There’s a general suspicion of young people, young men in particular. [For a man] there’s no such thing as looking Muslim. There are Muslim guys who decided to wear some sort of dressing or gown. You will not find this in Ireland. In fact you’d be highly discouraged by the community from doing that, because it might cause some backlash.

Houssam: Six months, maybe a year ago, an anti-Muslim group, Identity Ireland, protested outside the mosque in Clonskeagh, and they were shut down by all the Irish people.

Yara: I think they got 200 first-preference votes, and that’s worrying, because their policy is based solely on racism, xenophobia.

Houssam: There was a very positive response from the Irish people. It was the first time I saw a lot of Irish people come together for the Muslims. They actually shut them down. I haven’t heard of them since.

Yara: They had a protest on O’Connell Street, and as they were getting on to the Luas a group of Irish guys beat them up. So that’s amazing.

Yara: If you get to the stage where the state normalises racism, xenophobia, like France did with the burkini ban, it automatically promotes racism. I think we’re lucky in that sense as well, in that Ireland doesn’t condone racism.

Religion: “What we face as Muslims in the West or in Ireland is how to adapt your situation with Islam”

Marwan: I see religion as my set of values and morals, the mechanism that pushes me to have respect for others and to have patience.

Houssam: Religion is my way of life. If you took Islam out of my life I wouldn’t have a clue what I’m doing. In Clonskeagh there’s a Koranic school [Nurul Huda]. I was in that school from when I was six until I was 15, from 7am until 8am. So [religious] dedication is planted by our parents from a young age .

Hannah: I practise my religion as well, and starting to wear the hijab was a big change. When I was younger I used go to the Koranic school, and my mom used to tell us stories about Prophet Muhammad and the struggles he went through to start Islam as a religion.

Yara: Islam is a way of life. What we face as Muslims in the West or in Ireland is how to adapt your situation with Islam, because we have to change our situation to be compatible with Islam.

Aisha: Islam teaches us many things. One is how to do hardship when things don’t go your way. Islam is very educational in that sense, how you have to stay strong, change yourself for the better or change the situation you are in. Adapt yourself, become a better person and one day it will work. Dedication always pays off.

Marwan: Every society on campus other than the Islamic one centres most of their events around drinking. So there are a lot of young Muslims who are looking for that alternative, who don’t specifically want to drink to enjoy the company of others.

Hannah: In secondary school I got asked all the time, “Why are you not allowed drink? Why are you not allowed go to nightclubs?” You just have to explain it to them that it’s in our religion.

Marwan: I think the most important thing is to have the confidence and the ability to explain yourself and your religion in a way that others can understand.

Muslims in the media: “Journalists have token Muslims they go to. They don’t necessarily represent the majority”

Marwan: As Muslims we need to be more confident in our religion, to the extent that we don’t get easily offended. On the other hand our religion pushes us to be respectful of others and other religions. This is something that we would like to instil in the people around us. It is important for us to come [to The Irish Times] and experience how things are and what the newsroom looks like. We’re probably the first young Muslims to do so.

Yara: We are trying to be more engaged with the media.

Marwan: We’re very suspicious of the media.

Aisha: The media portrays a bad view of Arabs.

Yara: [When it comes to media coverage] journalists have these token Muslims they go to, but they don’t necessarily represent the majority.

Houssam: There are people out there [speaking for Muslims] in the media whom we’ve never seen in our lives, in the mosques, in the youth clubs.

Marwan: College Islamic societies are elected by the Muslim students to represent them, to speak on behalf of them. You don’t have that on any other level [among Muslims in Ireland], where you’re elected by the community on behalf of the community. The Irish Council of Imams was created too early [in 2006], by people who don’t have as much of a stake in this country as we have.

Houssam: Muslims are not one body. We’re not unified. There are two main groupings, Sunni and Shia, and just within the Sunnis there are six sects with different mosques. You can’t really come to one guy and ask, ‘What do you think?’

Patsy McGarry: Imam Umar al-Qadri has raised the issue of radicalisation among young Muslims at certain mosques in Ireland. Al-Qadri says extremism exists here, even if the numbers are small. “Maybe it is only 100, but we as Muslims must condemn them and we must not remain silent . . . because these people will spread the cancer of extremism to the Muslim youth,” he has said. His claims have not been supported by other Muslim leaders in Ireland. Is there truth to his claims? 

Houssam: I’m the senior youth co-ordinator for Muslim Youth Ireland, and I really dislike Umar al-Qadri. I don’t understand where he’s coming from. How dare he say the Muslim youth are radicalised when he hasn’t been to lunch with the youth? [As far as I know] he hasn’t come to the youth centre in Blanchardstown, to the Dundrum one, or the one in Clonskeagh. So what youth is he speaking about?

Yara: He doesn’t represent most Muslims.

Marwan: One of our major main aims for the year is to put ourselves forward and get in contact with all media organisations. Because if we don’t put in the effort then anyone can say, “I represent everyone.”

Conflict among Muslims in Ireland: “We have a thousand and one other issues”

Houssam: The internal conflict is growing, slowly growing.

Marwan: As an organisation [internal] division is not really something we like to go into. We have a thousand and one other issues. We have Muslims who are on the streets, lost, doing drugs. There are so many more issues out there that we should be addressing other than internal issues.

Aisha: No matter who is speaking there is always a backlash. Someone has an opinion, and it’s “Now the Muslims are too liberal. They’re saying they are trying to change their ways and be like non-Muslims.” And then you have non-Muslims saying, “The Muslims only believe in their own religion. They’re not interested in anybody else, they’re not integrated into society.” People are already saying enough stuff without you doing anything.

A new generation: “Young Muslims want to become entrepreneurs”

Marwan: So far we’ve just had a generation of immigrants here in Ireland, and all they were worried about was that their children were set. Now you have the newer generation who are more worried about where our future is. We always have the perspective of the UK next door, who are a few generations ahead of us, so we’re able to see exactly what we need to build.

The old generation didn’t really build any infrastructure other than the core ones, the mosques and the core community organisations.

We get a lot of young Muslims now who want to become entrepreneurs or who want to start community projects or social projects across the country. This is a new phenomenon.

Houssam: Will I stay in Ireland long term? My plan was to do this course and then a teaching course for two years, to teach at secondary school. At €20,000 a year it’s really demotivating, but I’m going to stick at it: a three-year business course and two years for teaching.

There are zero Muslim teachers in Ireland. That’s one of the fields where I want to make a change. Education is really, really important.

Marwan: I hope to go into management, to be of benefit both to my community and to the national community.

Hannah: I hope to do law.

Yara: Teaching is the best way to give back.

Aisha: I hope to stay in Ireland. I doubt I’ll see anywhere else as home. So I’m hoping to one day become a physicist, preferably a medical physicist, in research or in cancer wards in hospitals.

Houssam: This is an upcoming young generation. Just from the five of us here you’ll see so many languages, someone in engineering, someone doing business, there are journalists [from our community] nowadays, and people going into all sorts of fields.

We were born here, we’re going to third level, we’ll join the workforce. This is the start of Ireland and Muslim young people.

IRELAND & ISLAM: A QUICK GUIDE TO THE RELIGION HERE

The Muslim community in Ireland is young. Its oldest organisation, the Islamic Foundation of Ireland, was formed in 1959 by young Muslims who were, in the main, students at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, in Dublin.

The first mosque and Islamic centre in Ireland opened in 1976, on Harrington Street in Dublin. Among those who contributed to it was the late King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, of Saudi Arabia.

In 1981 Kuwait’s ministry of religious endowments and Islamic affairs sponsored the first full-time imam for the mosque, Sheikh Yahya al-Hussein, who is now Ireland’s longest-serving imam.

The first purpose-built mosque in Ireland was erected at Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, in 1986; the town also has a large halal meat plant.

The 1991 census recorded just 3,875 Muslims in the State, many of them refugees from Bosnia, Somalia and Kosovo, as well as asylum seekers and professionals and workers from other Islamic countries.

By the 2011 census Ireland officially had 49,204 Muslims, most of whom were professionals who had arrived during the Celtic Tiger boom. That figure was believed to be conservative.

At a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, in Clonskeagh in Dublin, last November, Minister of State for Equality, Immigration and Integration David Stanton said that now “the real figure is likely to be in the region of 55,000 to 70,000”.

More than half of Ireland’s Muslims are Asian or African. Many are students from Malaysia, the Gulf states and Pakistan. The figure also includes an estimated 2,000 doctors. The rest are businessmen, professionals, other workers and asylum seekers. Some are also Irish and other Europeans who have converted to Islam.

Overall Ireland’s Muslims are believed to include people from 40 countries. They live in towns and cities all over the island where they pray at an estimated 60 mosques (mostly in private houses). As with Islam internationally, the vast majority are Sunni.

The Ahlul Bayt Islamic Centre, at Milltown in Dublin, is the main minority Shia Islamic centre in Ireland. It caters to Shia Muslims from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and some Gulf states. It is estimated that about 15 per cent of Muslims worldwide are Shia.

In 2014 another minority, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, opened its Masjid Maryam ( Mosque of Mary), in Galway.

The largest mosque in Ireland – and one of the largest in Europe – is at the 5,000sq m Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, in Clonskeagh. It was built and is funded by the Al Maktoum Foundation of the United Arab Emirates. The imam is Sheikh Hussein Halawa, who is Egyptian. More than 850 children attend its Koranic school; 250 attend the Muslim National School, which is based at the centre.

There are now also Islamic student societies at almost every third-level institution in Ireland. Most operate under the umbrella Federation of Student Islamic Societies Ireland.

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