by Mary Fitzgerald
Source: Irish Times
“This is a very important step for us,” says Salim al-Faituri, the mosque’s Libyan-born imam. “We have been moving from one rented premises to another for years. Finally we will have a place of our own.” The new mosque, funded by donations including one €800,000 gift from a Qatari benefactor, will cater for 6,000 Muslims in Cork and several thousand more living in its hinterland.
“This is the second-biggest Muslim community outside Dublin,” says Ahmed H Zahran, an Egyptian academic at University College Cork who sits on the mosque committee. “And it’s growing.”
Ireland’s Muslim population, when compared with other European countries’, is relatively young, but it is changing fast. Almost 10 times more Muslims live in Ireland today than lived here 20 years ago. The 2006 census put the figure at just under 33,000, but most observers agree the true figure is well in excess of 40,000. The number of Muslims here increased by almost 70 per cent between 2002 and 2006, making Islam one of the fastest-growing religions in the country.
Ireland’s Muslim community is also becoming more diverse – so much so that it is truer to speak of a constellation of communities. In the past Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa tended to predominate. Most of this earlier generation came for educational or professional reasons and decided to stay, often marrying Irish citizens. From the early 1990s, however, the population swelled to include more Muslims from south and Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans. Many of the new arrivals were young economic migrants; others were asylum seekers. (Muslims from Nigeria, Libya, Iraq, Somalia, Algeria and elsewhere have sought asylum in Ireland.) Irish converts make up a small percentage, with some estimates putting the number in the hundreds. The vast majority of Muslims in Ireland are Sunni, but there is also a substantial Shia population in Dublin.
“This is probably one of the most diverse Muslim populations in Europe,” says Dr Oliver Scharbrodt, who is leading a pioneering three-year research project on Islam in Ireland at UCC. “In other European countries you have a particular ethnic group or nationality being dominant because of historical or colonial links, but that is not the case in Ireland. One could say that Ireland constitutes a microcosm of the global Ummah [community of believers], with all the different nationalities, trends and movements present and visible in a fairly small geographic and communal space.”
Muslims here cherish that diversity, but there are increasing signs that the growing number of nationalities and ethnicities, as well as doctrinal and political cleavages, brings its own challenges, not least the vexed question of who, if anyone, speaks for Islam in Ireland.
Most Muslims will argue that, given the traditional lack of anything resembling a church-like structure or hierarchy in Islam, it is impossible for any individual or organisation to claim to represent Muslims living here.
But there is one institution – the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland (ICCI) – that because of its size and financial resources, plus its long-standing relationship with the Government, towers over the rest. According to many disgruntled Muslims interviewed for this article, the centre jealously guards its self-appointed position as the voice of Islam in Ireland. Superficially, the ICCI is the most visible face of the faith, from its sprawling mosque complex in south Dublin, which hosts school tours several times a week, to the frequency with which its representatives participate in public debate.
When official Ireland wants to reach out to Muslims it will most likely turn to the centre in Clonskeagh. President Mary McAleese made the most recent of several visits in December. The centre has welcomed Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his predecessor Bertie Ahern, plus a parade of ministers. (Dick Roche visited during the Israeli military offensive on Gaza in early 2009 to explain Ireland’s position on the conflict.) Such high-profile visitors are usually hosted by Shaheen Ahmed, a Pakistan-born businessman and friend of Ahern’s who ran unsuccessfully as a Fianna Fáil candidate in the 2009 local elections.
The Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland’s four-acre complex, which includes a school, was built in 1996 with funding from the al-Maktoum Foundation, headed by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum, deputy ruler of Dubai and finance minister of the United Arab Emirates. The al-Maktoum family has extensive business interests in Ireland through its involvement in the bloodstock industry. The centre has about 20 members of staff, mostly of Arab origin, who are full-time employees of the al-Maktoum Foundation. Its chief executive is the Iraqi-born Dr Nooh al-Kaddo, who moved from Britain to Dublin in 1997 to run the complex.
The opening of a Saudi embassy in Dublin in 2009 has added to the dynamics shaping the Muslim experience in Ireland. Embassy officials told Muslims living here that they plan to open a school and a mosque in Dublin. “If that happens it would be a challenge to the status quo,” says Umar Qadri, imam at the al-Mustafa Islamic Centre, in Blanchardstown. “It would have a very big impact, as we have seen in other countries.”
In the meantime, Scharbrodt says, the Government should engage more with the diversity of Ireland’s Muslims, particularly as the numbers grow and second-generation Muslims come of age. “Ideally it should try to relate to and establish links with as many mosque groups and organisations as possible. That requires a high investment of time and resources, because it’s obviously easier to just talk to one mosque and one organisation than to make efforts to reach out to the actual diversity within the community.