Ireland's Muslims forging an identity


The Faces of Islam: Our 25,000-30,000-strong Muslim community is diverse in terms of nationality and ethnicity, writes Mary Fitzgerald.

Nothing about the squat grey building tucked behind a veterinary hospital on one of Cork's industrial estates gives the slightest clue that this is where most of the city's Muslims come to pray. There is no dome, no minaret and no crescent pointing skyward. It looks more like a disused workshop than a mosque.

Inside, blue patterned carpets line a series of interconnecting rooms. There are posters explaining the movements for prayer and polite notices asking visitors to turn off their mobile phones.

The mosque's Libyan imam, Sheikh Salim Al Faituri, is apologetic. "This is just a temporary arrangement," he explains, after breaking his daily Ramadan fast with the traditional iftar meal eaten after sunset. "Inshallah [God willing] before long we will have a proper place of worship."

Members of Cork's Muslim community, the second biggest after Dublin, have been renting this building in the city's southside since 2002. "It's nowhere near big enough," says Farghal Radwan, a consultant at the Bons Secours hospital.

"Our numbers are increasing all the time and we have people coming from different parts of Munster to pray here. At Eid Al Fitr [the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan] last year, we had 2,000 people turning up. Most of them had to stand outside."

Many other Irish Muslims are in the same position. While Dublin has two long-established Sunni mosques - the largest at Clonskeagh and the other on South Circular Road - and a Shia mosque in Milltown, the rest of Ireland's Muslims pray at makeshift mosques in warehouses, industrial estates and even private homes.

Outside Dublin, the only other purpose-built mosque is in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo. Attempts to establish alternative spaces for prayer can run into problems. In Tralee this summer, plans to convert a residential house into a mosque drew objections from local residents concerned about traffic congestion.

The increasing need for extra places of worship is just one sign that Ireland's Muslim community is changing more rapidly than at any other time in its relatively short history. It's getting bigger for a start. Most observers agree that the last officially collated figures have long been surpassed. According to the 2002 census, there were just under 20,000 Muslims in Ireland. Today, conservative estimates put the population at 25,000-30,000; others say it could be even higher.

It's a far cry from the early days of the Muslim community in Ireland.

The country's first Islamic Society was established in the late 1950s by a group of foreign Muslims studying at Irish universities. Because there was no mosque in Dublin at the time, the students, mostly from the Middle East and south Asia, gathered for jum'ah (Friday) prayers in their homes or in rented halls.

With the help of donations from relatives and individuals such as King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Ireland's fledgling Muslim community opened the country's first mosque and Islamic Centre in a four-storey building on Dublin's Harrington Street in 1976.

The premises soon became too small to accommodate the growing number of worshippers and in 1983 a former church building on South Circular Road was bought, renovated and converted into what is now known as Dublin Mosque.

In 1996 the Islamic Cultural Centre was opened in Clonskeagh. The four-acre complex, which includes Ireland's biggest mosque and a school, was funded primarily by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the deputy ruler of Dubai.

Unlike Britain and France, where the majority of Muslims come from former colonies such as Pakistan and Algeria; or Germany where the Muslim population is made up of Turks who immigrated under post-war labour schemes, Ireland's Muslims are less tied to the country's historical baggage. Most came here for educational or professional reasons and decided to stay, often marrying Irish citizens.

"Ireland's experience is unique in many ways," says Sheikh Zille Umar Qadri of Clonee Islamic Centre in west Dublin. "If you look at the Muslim population in the UK and other European countries, it is mostly people who came from poor rural areas of countries like Pakistan. Many were illiterate labourers when they arrived.

"The majority of Muslims that came to Ireland already had a solid background and education. They were doctors, engineers, business people and students. It made it easier for them to integrate and become part of the community."

Ireland's Muslim community has always been diverse in terms of nationality and ethnicity. In the past, Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa tended to predominate. In recent years, however, the population has swollen to include more Muslims from south and southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and China.

Many of the new arrivals are young economic migrants, others are asylum seekers. In 1992 the first group of Muslim asylum seekers arrived from Bosnia, later followed by a second group from Somalia. Muslims from Nigeria, Libya, Iraq and Algeria have also sought asylum in Ireland.

Irish converts make up a small percentage, with some estimates putting the number of converts at about 10 a year.

"It feels very different to other European countries," says Dr Radwan. "Our community is more cosmopolitan and because of its relatively small size, you see and feel that diversity more."

The community also contains many different sects and sub-sects. Apart from the long-established mainstream Sunni and Shia communities, many of the newer members of Ireland's Muslim population have set up prayer groups that focus on schools of thought popular in their home countries. These tend to centre around an imam or cleric who adheres to a certain school and builds a following based on his preaching.

In the greater Dublin area, a number of congregations have grown around individuals who espouse sects common in south Asia and Africa.

Sheikh Ismail Kotwal, a British-born Muslim with Pakistani roots, came to Ireland nine years ago. He belongs to the Deobandi sect. Centred on a rigid interpretation of Islam, Deobandism is most common in Pakistan and India.

"There was a great demand within the Pakistani community here for someone who could preach in Urdu," he says of his decision to move to Ireland.

Sheikh Kotwal runs Koranic classes at the Noor Ul Islam centre on Dublin's Aungier Street and preaches every Friday in a warehouse owned by a Muslim businessman in the nearby Blackpitts industrial park. He studied at Darul Uloom in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest and most prestigious madrassa, and says he would like to open a Darul Uloom subsidiary in Ireland sometime in the future.

"At the Blackpitts mosque I speak for 10 minutes in English, five minutes in Urdu and then say prayers in Arabic," he explains. "It has become very popular." Sheikh Kotwal estimates that, on average, 800 people attend Friday prayers at his mosque.

At least two congregations in the Dublin area are dominated by the Sufi-tinged Barelvi sect popular in south Asia.

Ireland also has a small community of Tablighi Jamaat, the transnational Islamic missionary movement.

Based around a mosque in Lucan, their numbers are estimated at between 40 and 50. The Tablighi Jamaat concentrates its efforts on fellow Muslims, aiming to strengthen faith and encourage regular prayer. They go door-to-door in areas with significant Muslim populations and travel overseas for missionary work.

The Irish Muslim community also contains a smattering of those who adhere to the Salafi school of thought, an austere rendering of Islam similar to Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. Small in number, the Salafis in Ireland are not organised around any particular mosque or congregation.

The Nigerian community is one of the most recent additions to the country's Muslim population. There are around 1,000 adult Muslims from Nigeria now living in Ireland, according to Imam Shehu, a cleric from Lagos. He preaches what he describes as "African Sufism" at a mosque in a business park in Dublin's East Wall.

"We get around 200 people coming for Friday prayers," he says. "Some of them travel from outside Dublin. It's a real Nigerian community thing. Islam as a religion is based on unity and we recognise that but we are different in some respects to Arab and south Asian Muslims."

While many within the Muslim community consider its diversity to be one of its greatest strengths, there are increasing signs that the growing melting pot of nationalities, ethnicities and sects brings its own challenges.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the issue of who speaks for Irish Muslims. There is no equivalent in Ireland of organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain. With no clearly defined leadership, the Muslim population here has experienced sporadic bouts of infighting in the form of personality clashes, power struggles and petty squabbles. One dispute between two leading members ended up in the High Court.

More recently, the controversy surrounding Sheikh Shaheed Satardien exposed some of the jockeying for authority. Sheikh Satardien, a South African who arrived in Ireland four years ago, claimed Muslim clerics here were "in denial" about rising extremism within certain elements of the community.

His allegations provoked a furious response from clerics and ordinary Muslims. Many attributed his criticisms to grievances held over his failure to establish an umbrella group of Muslim representatives.

Sheikh Satardien was also known to be critical of what he considered to be an Arab-dominated hierarchy within the community. In one e-mail sent to a prominent member, he wrote "Get rid of your Arabism and recognise that Muslims are a diverse group. There are more than 42 different nationalities amongst Muslims in Ireland. There are also different strands of Muslims and various schools of thought."

Satardien has been largely ostracised following the furore over his comments on extremism. The organisation he attempted to set up, the Supreme Muslim Council of Ireland, has now been overtaken by another council launched last month.

This new group, the Irish Council of Imams, represents 14 imams and includes those from Sunni and Shia traditions. It is chaired by Imam Hussein Halawa from the Islamic Cultural Centre and its deputy chairman is Imam Yahya Al-Hussein of the Islamic Foundation of Ireland. Council members include representatives from Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford, Meath, and various Dublin mosques.

"We had been preparing for this for quite some time," says Imam Halawa. "It was not just a response to recent events. There is a need for co-operation, consensus and a united approach."

Cork's Sheikh Al Faituri agrees: "The importance of the council is that it will speak with one voice when reacting to events. Unlike Shaheed Satardien who spoke for no one but himself, it will present a united front."

One of the first moves by the new Council of Imams was to agree on the date on which all Irish Muslims would begin Ramadan this year, a small but significant step.

The council's objectives also include a pledge to encourage "positive integration into the Irish society". This will prove crucial in the years to come. Ireland's Muslim community is changing, not only as a result of increased immigration in recent years, but also due to the fact that the first generation of Irish-born Muslims is growing up.

"With some of the older generation, it can seem like they never really left their home country," says Fr Kieran Flynn, who carried out the first in-depth study of Ireland's Muslim community for his postgraduate thesis at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Trinity College.

"They maintain strong ties and keep up with events back home. The next stage, however, will be crucial as Muslims really settle into Irish society, embracing it not just through employment but through putting down roots in terms of family and society. It will involve negotiating their Irishness through being born here or having their children grow up here. It is really the children, that generation, that will play this role and truly claim their place in Irish society."

For Carol Nagle, a Dublin woman who took the name Sakinah when she converted to Islam 20 years ago, that will mean seeing her children grow up Irish without losing their Muslim identity. She converted two years before meeting her Egyptian husband, Farghal Radwan. The Cork-based couple have five children. "My children are very comfortable with who they are," she says.

"They are Irish and Muslim and proud of it." Her daughter Sarah (15), agrees.

"Being Muslim doesn't make me any less Irish," she says. "I was born here and I wouldn't like it any other way. Egypt is cool but I feel Irish more than anything else."

Mary Fitzgerald is the winner of the first Douglas Gageby Fellowship for young journalists. Her reports on "The Faces of Islam" appear in Friday's Irish Times.