MUSLIMS THRIVE IN IRELAND
- MUSLIMS NO LONGER STRANGERS IN IRELAND
Cathleen Falsani, Chicago Sun-Times, 10/14/05
DUBLIN -- The main reason I've returned to Ireland almost yearly since
my first visit in 1993 is because of hospitality.
When it comes to welcoming strangers, being innately kind, and
unfailingly openhearted, the Irish are world champions. At least in my
book. Anyone who knows me has heard me say (at least twice) that it is
physically impossible to have a bad time in Ireland, the ancestral
home my grandmother, Nell, left about 80 years ago.
Despite its moody weather, Ireland is, in my experience, the
friendliest place on earth.
Hospitality is, in essence, a spiritual quality. A virtue. St.
Benedict would seem to agree with me. He codified hospitality as a
spiritual practice in his famous rule, telling his monks they should
welcome strangers into their midst as if each were Jesus Christ
himself. Perhaps the root of Ireland's uniquely friendly character has
something to do with its deep-seated and innate spirituality. It is a
mystical place, a land where spirit is all around, cherished, fought
and died for.
But until very recently, Ireland was a spiritually homogenous land. A
Christian nation, and, specifically, a Roman Catholic land. It didn't
start out that way, of course. There is no need to recount herein
Ireland's long history of sectarian troubles, but many centuries
hence, there is a tacit and largely peaceful coexistence between an
increasingly nominal Catholic population, and its minority Protestant
A few years ago, I traveled to Ireland to write about its tiny, but
historic, Jewish population. With about 1,700 Jews in the Republic of
Ireland and over the border in Northern Ireland, it is believed to be
one of the fastest shrinking Jewish populations in the world. Jews
have made their home in Ireland for about a thousand years --the
earliest reference to its Jewish inhabitants being from the 11th century.
On that trip, I also made a note of something I'd not noticed on
earlier visits: women in hijab, the distinctive head coverings of
religious Muslim women, walking through the Grafton Street shopping
district, waiting for buses, standing in the queue at Dublin's main
post office. They didn't seem to be tourists; they looked like locals.
I took a longer look around me and saw more unfamiliar faces in the
crowd: Africans, Arabs, Indians and Southeast Asians living and
working amidst the freckled redheads and those with, as they say, "the
map of Ireland on their faces."
So on this visit, which happened to coincide with the first week of
Ramadan, Islam's holiest month, my husband and I decided to stop by
one of Dublin's most unique and unlikely attractions: the Islamic
Cultural Centre of Ireland, a sprawling, ornate mosque and community
center (complete with a copper dome and towering minaret, each topped
with Islam's crescent symbol) located on several acres of wooded land
in the city's tony suburb of Clonskeagh.
'More than welcome'
One of the first things we noticed as we drove through the gates of
the Islamic center complex was a sign advertising its restaurant, the
Olive Tree. All are welcome, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the sign
beckoned. And they deliver, too.
When I placed a call to the Islamic center -- one of two official
mosques in Dublin and one of about 10 in the north and south of
Ireland (including a Muslim meeting house in rural County Cavan not
far from my grandmother's home) -- I wasn't sure what to expect. Even
in Chicago, my calls sometimes receive a mixed reception.
It's understandable. American Muslims, too often, are put in the
position to defend themselves and their faith against the violent
actions of a few scoundrels who claim their murderous actions are done
in the name of Islam. More often than not, reporters call only when
something's wrong. So I was surprised -- stunned, really -- when I
rang the Dublin mosque late one afternoon, introduced myself as an
American religion writer and asked if I could come the next morning to
speak to someone about what life is like for the Muslim community in
Without a moment's hesitation, the friendly man on the other end of
the phone said, in typical Irish form (although he said it with a
heavy Malaysian accent), "You're more than welcome."
So off we went.
As we sat in his groovy office in one wing of the vast Islamic center,
Nooh Al-Kaddo, the executive director, smiled warmly and answered my
questions enthusiastically for more than an hour. An Iraqi native who
moved from Liverpool to Dublin in 1997 to run the Islamic center,
Al-Kaddo recounted some of the history of the Muslim community in
Ireland and his own experiences as a stranger in a strange land. "If
you talk about the Muslim community, it's exactly like Ireland: It's
changing and expanding and becoming more colorful," Al-Kaddo told me.
The Muslim community, according to 2002 Irish census figures, numbers
about 20,000 in the south of Ireland and, according to Irish Muslim
leaders, is more like 25,000 in the south with another few thousand in
When the Islamic Cultural Center of Ireland opened in November 1996,
Muslim leaders expected some day there might be as many as 10,000
Muslims living in Ireland. They were way off, Al-Kaddo said, laughing.
Much of the dramatic increase came in a wave of refugees and asylum
seekers from Eastern Europe and Africa in the mid-1990s, he said.
The influx caused some friction at first, both within the broader
Irish population and the Irish Muslim community itself. The newcomers
looked different. They didn't speak English. And their culture was
vastly different from anything traditionally Irish.
Still, eventually, the new arrivals were welcomed warmly.
"It was a bit of a shaky time back then," Al-Kaddo said, "how to help
them integrate positively and rightly, and, for me the most difficult
task: making sure they knew how to distinguish between culture and
religion. . . . To convince them of this took time."
For instance, Islamic scripture does not say Muslim women must cover
their faces, or that non-Muslims may not enter a mosque. Both were
cultural misunderstandings the new arrivals brought with them,
Al-Kaddo explained, as a herd of uniformed Catholic high school
students traipsed past his window on their way into the mosque. It was
a field trip, one of many made every weekday by Irish schoolchildren,
civic groups and tourists from around the world.
"The society here is a welcoming society. We never felt -- even during
Sept. 11, the London bombing and the Madrid bombing -- that we were
blamed." There were no real threats made to their mosques, no
incidents of hate crimes against Irish Muslims, Al-Kaddo said. "We
never had such problems that made us feel like we are not welcome in
It's been the policy of the Dublin Muslim community since its
inception to be open, friendly neighbors. That is why the walls of the
mosque and Islamic center are low, the windows are open, passersby can
see into the complex. It doesn't look fortified. It looks inviting,
welcoming. And it is.
"I used to stand outside and see the people, the Irish people,
standing outside the gates, looking," Al-Kaddo recalled. "I saw them
and I used to go to them and welcome them. They'd say, 'Can we come
in?' And I said, 'Yes of course, you can come in.' And they'd say,
'Are you sure?!' And of course I am sure. Nowadays, 60 percent of the
customers in the restaurant are Irish, non-Muslims. Even Miriam Ahern
[the Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's wife] came here last week to our
When it was time for us to leave, Al-Kaddo showed us to the door,
apologized for not having offered us tea or coffee -- he'd forgotten
as he's fasting for Ramadan -- and wished us peace.
Or as the Irish say, Siochan Leat.
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