Islamophobia – or not?

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Donaghmede shopping centre, North Dublin

It’s a sunny September morning in Dublin and I’m back on the northside of the city – Donaghmede – where I’ve organised to meet a local guy who is opposed to the construction in his locality of what will be Ireland’s largest mosque.

I head to McDonalds outside the Donaghmede shopping centre where I’ve organised to meet him. It’s a busy Saturday morning and there’s a queue at the counter even though it’s only 11. A man with a book in his hands is watching me quizzically as I walk in. I head over to him. “George?” I ask. “Yes” he smiles, “Colette?” We shake hands and I sit down in the booth opposite him.

George Sturdy has pale skin and bright blue eyes and an almost-shaved head. He looks like he’s in his thirties. The book in his hands is red-covered. It is ‘One Day in September’ by Simon Reeve about the 1972 murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. George tells me he reads a lot.

I came to meet George after local Labour TD Sean Kenny forwarded me a strongly-worded email he had received from George objecting to the construction of the Clongriffin mosque. I’m here to hear his objections. George tells me that he subsequently sent an apology to Deputy Kenny because of the way the email was worded but that he is still opposed to the construction of the mosque.

George lists reams of incidents that have been in the media in recent years relating to Muslims: the decapitation of a British soldier in Woolwich in May, calls for Shariah law in England, various bombings, protests, complaints about Christmas lights and alcohol consumption, attacks on homosexuals and stones being thrown at scantily clad people trying to raise money for charity.

George tells me that he himself lives in the nearby suburb of Baldoyle which is about a mile and a half from Clongriffin which was just fields when he was growing up “where kids used to play”. He says that anyone he has spoken to in the area does not want the mosque to be built.

I ask how many people he has spoken to. He tells me “about ten”. But he adds that “most people in the area don’t know the mosque is being built”. He says that he heard about plans for the mosque about a year ago but “I heard nothing more about it until I went on to the Nationalist Movement Ireland forum about two weeks ago”.

“Are you a member of the movement?” I ask him. “No” he says “but I do follow their forum”. He tells me that he supports their policies “against this mosque and against Islam being allowed to grow in the west” but that he doesn’t support extreme right wing views.

George explains that the main concern is that the area will become “Islamofied”. He cites instances of areas in England where the street signs are in Bangladeshi and says that people are concerned the area would “be taken over” and not recognised as an Irish neighbourhood. He says people are also wary of Islam because of “what they’ve seen over the past ten years or more – beginning with 9-11”.

I ask him if he knows any Muslims himself. “No, I don’t” he says. He adds that when he visited Paris in 1996 the only guy who was friendly to him was a Moroccan. “I’ve no problem with any person – black, white, brown, foreign – it’s just Islam that seems to cause trouble wherever it goes”.

“Muslims take offence at the slightest insult that they perceive against their religion or against their prophet” he says.

“Would you be open to meeting and chatting to a Muslim?” I ask. “No, I don’t see any point” he says. “I’m not going to change their views and there’s only a point in talking to people if you can reach some compromise”.

I ask him what would be a compromise. “If the mosque wasn’t built” he says “or a giant cathedral was to be built in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia”.

I suggest that maybe if he met Muslims involved in the Clongriffin mosque he might understand it from their perspective. “No” he says again. “There wouldn’t be any point. It’d be like Gerry Adams sitting down with Ian Paisley”.

“Are you afraid of Islam?” I ask. “Yes” he answers. “I’m afraid of what it does when it becomes the majority religion and takes over. It’s the only religion in the world that has significant problems with other religions and as their numbers grow they become more insistent that you can’t criticise their religion. They want to erode freedom of speech and freedom of doing things that don’t comply with their religion”. He cites examples of attitudes towards homosexuality, alcohol or the wearing of mankinis to raise money for charity.

I ask him would he speak to a Muslim who drinks alcohol and has no problem with homosexuality. “No” he says again. “Talk is cheap – every city in Europe that has a significant Muslim population has had trouble. We only have around 40,000 Muslims here but if we had 500,000 it’d be different”. What about an Irish convert? “No, they would be even more entrenched in their views”.

“I have no reason for meeting anyone of the Islamic faith” he tells me. “It’d be like meeting the Pope and trying to convert him to the Church of England”.

I suggest that communication and dialogue is important for peace and understanding in the world today. “Dialogue – that’s for the leaders. Putin, Obama, Cameron”.

“Basically it’s a medieval way of life and is not compatible with modern western society. If it was a Sikh temple or a Jewish synagogue I wouldn’t care”.

“Would you say you’re Islamophobic?” I ask. “No, I’m rational” he responds. “A phobia is an irrational fear”.

So what next? “I’d like people to get out and protest because once the mosque is built it would be too late” he says.

After I leave Donaghmede I take a trip back to Clongriffin which is only minutes away by car. Although the buidings in Clongriffin are modern and shiny and the area is well manicured and clean it has a desolate air to it. Almost like a modern ghost-town. But with no ghosts.

The main 'square' in Clongriffin on a Saturday morning.

The main ‘square’ in Clongriffin on a Saturday morning. The site for the planned mosque is the green field in the background.

As I drive up the ‘main street’ and around the town square I count 33 ground-floor retail units. Only a handful further down the street have businesses inside. Most of the units have ‘To Let’ signs in their windows. Then there’s a Centra, an Italian chipper, a barbers, off-license and an office. That’s it.

A once-used retail unit on Clongriffin main street. Now closed.

A once-used retail unit on Clongriffin main street. Now closed.

As I drive away from Clongriffin I think to myself that the mosque will revitalise an area left frozen in time at the height of the boom. I’m back to the main junction and as I prepare to turn left at the traffic lights I see a large dark-coloured decrepit looking development facing me with big iron railings blocking what was once a road. There are security guards hanging out beside a little cabin.

I get out of my car and go over to ask them what’s going on. “This is Priory Hall” the female guard says. I’m stunned into silence as I survey the scene. I think that this bleak space of emptied out apartments is where protests should really be taking place. The reality of the tragedy of Priory Hall hits when it becomes visible outside of the frame of the TV. Reality via the media is a different reality. People in the media are different too.

Down the road from Clongriffin - the desolate legacy of the Irish boom - Priory Hall

Down the road from Clongriffin – the desolate legacy of the Irish boom – Priory Hall

The stories of real life don’t have simplified beginnings and ends. Are media representations accurate portrayals of the reality beyond? Are the Islam and Muslims of the media the same as that of not? Are the stories real? Representative? Accurate? George Sturdy thinks yes. Muslims I’ve spoken to think no. What picture would a non-Irish person who’s never met an Irish person have of me? What preconceptions?

Later, at home, I google ‘Nationalist Movement Ireland’ Their home page says, in large writing, ‘SHOW MULTICULTURALISM THE RED CARD’. I think about Ireland and all the Irish people who have left over the years. Irish people in countries all over the world. No to multiculturalism? Does this mean Irish people stay in Ireland?

The forum on the website has one section dedicated to ‘Real Immigrant Stories: Scammers and Criminals’ and the ‘General Discussion’ area has lots of stories about people of different nationalities and there’s also a story on the death of Hitler’s bodyguard.

George had told me that he is not a member of the movement but that he did speak to one of the leaders, John Kavanagh, before meeting me. I also googled John Kavanagh.

And what of the issue of meeting ‘others’ who do not share our views, opinions, beliefs, values? Should we only meet those with whom we agree? Or those who we can convince to change? Or should we meet people in order to listen? In order to understand?

 

Nationalist Movement Ireland - website home page

Nationalist Movement Ireland – website home page

George won’t speak to Muslims but for the next blog I’m going to look into the issue further – I’ll be speaking to Irish Times journalist Mary Fitzgerald about Islamophobia in Ireland and I’ll speak to someone from the Clongriffin Mosque Project to get their response to George’s concerns.

Ireland’s largest mosque gets green light

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Clongriffin – looking towards the site where Ireland’s largest mosque will be built

An Bord Pleanala, Ireland’s national planning appeals board, have given the green light for what will be Ireland’s largest mosque.

The three-storey domed mosque planned for Clongriffin in North Dublin is part of a huge project that includes minarets, schools, a conference centre, gym, swimming pool, restaurant, crèche, library, offices and residential apartments.

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The shopping centre in Clongriffin – most of the units inside lie vacant

It’s estimated that the development will cost between €45 and €65 million. It will cater for around 550 people for Friday prayers and for up to 3,000 during festivals. 

It will be Ireland’s third purpose-built mosque. The other two purpose-built mosques are in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo and in Clonskeagh in Dublin. There is also a purpose built Shia Islamic Centre in Milltown in Dublin.

The Muslim population of Ireland is estimated to be over 50,000. Most Muslims in the country worship in ‘makeshift mosques’ in housing estates, community halls or industrial warehouses.

The Dublin Welfare Society, who submitted the planning application, currently manage two mosques located in industrial units in Clondalkin and Swords.

The group are made up of a number of Dublin-based Muslims from different backgrounds and nationalities.

Dublin City Council had granted planning permission to the Dublin Welfare Society last March for the development. However, local Labour TD Tommy Broughan appealed the decision on the grounds of size and potential impact on traffic in the area.

Clongriffin is a newly developed area of Dublin. It was born in the boom years with a major residential development in 2002.

I visited the site for the Clongriffin mosque in July when I attended a special Ramadan event hosted by the Dublin Welfare Society. The event was held in one of the spanking-new retail units that surround the ‘town’ square.

Inside, the shopping centre was fitted with clean shining floor tiles and sparkling light fittings but the elevator was frozen in time and the retail units lay empty.

Development in Clongriffin almost halted completed with the collapse of the property market. Roads have been left unfinished and many of the retail units have never been occupied.

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One of the vacant retail units in Clongriffin’s main square

Access to the dart station, which was developed to cater for the burgeoning population, has also proved problematic.

It is hoped that with the go-ahead given for the new mosque and Islamic centre, that the development will result in much of local infrastructure being completed and a new access area to the Dart station.

Full article in the Irish Times:

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/ireland-s-largest-mosque-gets-approval-from-an-bord-plean%C3%A1la-1.1509586

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The site for what will be Ireland’s biggest mosque – Clongriffin, Dublin

My first visit to Clongriffin during my Ramadan blogging:

http://religioninireland.net/2013/07/28/plans-for-irelands-biggest-mosque-and-photographs/

The nameless niqab and Alfred Hitchcock

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Image of a niqab from the internet

I know it sounds terrible but the truth is that I was so excited to be finally talking to a woman whose face was covered that I forgot to ask her name. Only her eyes were visible – two bright blue sparkling ones – amongst the black.

I’ll call her Mariam.

It was Saturday night and I was in the shiny new Clongriffin shopping centre. A Muslim group known as the Dublin Welfare Society was renting out a section of the largely vacant centre to host a talk about converting to Islam which was to be followed by a special Iftar meal.

Around two hundred people – men, women and children – attended the event so the centre looked busy. The talk was in a large upstairs room. A crooked partition about the height of a person ran down the centre of the room. A dividing line. Women were on the left side. Men on the right.

The talk had just finished and people were wandering around, gathering in groups near the back of the room where the food was being prepared. It was nearly time to break the fast.

I noticed only one woman – other than myself – who wasn’t wearing a head scarf. Mariam was the first woman I saw there whose entire body and face was covered in drapes of black.

I’m ingrigued by Muslim women who cover their faces. I think I must subconsciously (and erroneously) associate the invisibility of mouths with voice-lessness and the black coverings with unapproachability. A fortress of cloth. When I saw Mariam I breached the perceived boundaries and went up to her. “Could I ask you a few questions?” I asked her nervously. “Yes” she answers in an unexpected American accent.

“I wear the niqab to be closer to God” she tells me. “It’s my personal decision. It makes it easier to interact in communities and to maintain my modesty. It’s a very personal thing. I really enjoy wearing it”.

Other people however, don’t always respond positively. “There is some negativity towards it, even from other Muslims”.

Mariam was born in the U.S. to an Irish-American Catholic family. She converted to Islam when she was 32 and immediately started wearing the hijab (which just covers the hair). “It’s hard to go through your life dressing a certain way and then to change but I believe that covering up is following God’s word. I’ll be honest, when I read the verse in the Quran about covering I did believe it meant to cover the face but I wasn’t ready”.

There is often an assumption that Muslim women who convert do so because they have married a Muslim man but Mariam tells me that she wore the niqab before she got married.

“We met through Facebook” she tells me, laughing, when I ask how did she meet her husband. “The only picture on Facebook of me was one where I was wearing the niqab. I found him interesting, charming, attractive and we chatted before he knew what I looked like. Then, after discussing marriage [she told me that in Islam you don’t talk to a man for no reason or just for friendship] he said “now can I see what you look like?””

Mariam’s Irish connection goes back three generations but she tells me that her husband, who is Algerian, is “more Irish than I am. He has an Irish accent and he knows the culture more than me. He was living in Ireland so after we got married I moved here”.

It’s time to break the fast so Mariam excuses herself and goes to take a drink of water. It’s only a few minutes later that I realise I’ve forgotten to ask her name. I go up to the only woman I see who is wearing the niqab. “Excuse me” I ask, tapping her on the shoulder “but are you the woman I just spoke to?” “No” the response comes back to me “I am her daughter”.

I wonder what it is that so intrigues me about women who wear the burqa or the niqab. Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind – an interview I saw with him many years ago. I vaguely remember him saying that what we don’t see is more powerful than what we do. Our imaginations fill in the gaps. I do a quick google. “Suspense is like a woman” Hitchcock said. “The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement.” That could explain it.

Moons and butterfly wings – Jasmina’s story

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The waning moon

Ramadan has changed my relationship with the moon. Some days I see it high in the middayed-bluey sky and I pay attention to it in a way I never did before – its waxing or its waning. Its size.

Ramadan ends with the sighting of the next new moon. Every day now the bright side of the moon is shrinking in size. The month of fasting draws to a close.

I’ve finally lost a bit of weight. I’m down three pounds now and delighted with myself. Jasmina, one of the women I met on Saturday night in Clongriffin tells me that if you haven’t lost weight during Ramadan you haven’t done it properly. She has lost three kilos since the beginning of the month.

“Not to put a value on people” she tells me “but the whole point of Ramadan is to come out renewed in some way – for example to cut down on swearing or backbiting – and to learn to control your physical desires.”

“The idea is not to fast for eighteen hours and then gorge on everything and anything” she says. “There is nothing wrong with having treats but some people use Ramadan as a month of feasting and by the end of it their clothes don’t fit.”

Jasmina is from Australia and has a Home-And-Away style accent. She has a chirpy, confident, warm personality. She is wearing a colourful scarf on her head (hijab) and a long flowing black cloak called an abaya that covers her from neck to wrists to ankles. Underneath the cloak she is wearing a dress.

It must be hot with the hijab, heatwave, abaya and dress. “Other sisters [meaning other Muslim women] are saying “it’s so hot”” she says laughing “but I am like “this is nothing compared to Australian heat””.

“And the abaya is very light” she tells me holding up a section of the material to the light. “You can see through it” .

“In the Middle East they call this material “Atlas material”. I don’t know why but instead of saying it’s chiffon or silk they say “it’s Atlas”. And the cut is a butterfly cut so it’s very airy”. She reaches out her arms and the material falls down like wings.

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An abaya image from the internet – butterfly cut

“On hot days I just wear leggings and a singlet underneath” she says. “And you can wear any shoes that you like”. “Even flip flops?” I ask, surprised. She laughs “no no, the feet have to be covered”. She holds up her right foot to show me. She is wearing red runners.

Jasmina’s family are from North Africa and her husband is half-Algerian, half-Irish.

“We normally break the fast with a light soup, pastry, dates and if my husband is hungry he’d make himself a sandwich too – I’m not a very traditional housewife” she adds, smiling. “After breaking the fast my husband goes to pray in the mosque but this year I haven’t gone to the mosque as my daughter [who is three] is in bed by 8.30”.

The food she makes includes traditional Algerian soups, meat-filled pastries called Bourek and for sweets she would mainly eat fruit “or whatever I can grab from the shop – like maybe profiteroles.”

“My husband has a sweet tooth” she smiles. “He needs to have his Barry’s tea and rich tea biscuits. That’s the Irish contribution. But I prefer just some fruit.”

Muslims all over the world eat different foods for their Iftar meals. Experiences of Ramadan are as diverse as the cultures from which Muslims come.

It’s like looking at the moon and seeing either the rabbit or the man or even Michael Jackson (as I sometimes see). The object that we perceive in the shadows of the surface is dependent on the vantage point and cultural background.

Perspective is everything. The moon takes on new meanings. And for the first time in my life, as I share the experience of Ramadan with Muslims all over the world, the moon has become my divider of time.

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A little bit of lunacy

Ireland’s biggest mosque – plans for Clongriffin

Women are exempt from fasting when menstruating so my fast is off for the moment. Muslim women are expected to make up the days at a later date. But I’m not that dedicated to my experiment. I had my first morning breakfast today since the 9th July.

Also, on the topic of women’s issues – I might have to ditch plans of taking photographs of Muslim women. I’m not sure if it’s shyness, issues of modesty, vanity or fear but for some reason the only photographs of women I’ve managed to take are photographs of their backs. And last night I tried really hard.

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A sign on one of the retail units at the Clongriffin shopping centre

I was off to north Dublin to check out the site of what is planned to be ‘Ireland’s biggest mosque’. The group planning the mosque – Dublin Welfare Society – were hosting a special Ramadan event for converts or people thinking of converting. There was also to be an Iftar meal. Food? I couldn’t say no. But I did make it clear I had no plans to convert.

I also got the chance to interview lots of amazing and very interesting women. But photographs? Not a hope!

There are, to date, only three purpose-built Islamic centres or mosques in Ireland. Most Muslims here use make-shift mosques – temporary spaces that are usually rented out – like residential homes, industrial warehouses or community halls.

Dublin City Council have granted planning permission for the huge new development at Clongriffin but an appeal has been lodged with An Bord Pleanala. A decision on the outcome is expected this Wednesday.

Now that I’ve met the people behind the development and the people who will be attending the mosque I feel patches of nervousness and hope on their behalf. Wednesday will be a big day. I’ll keep you posted on the outcome.

The planned development is ginormous. It will be on a six acre site on lands owned by developer Gerry Gannon. It will cater for up to 3,000 people during festivals, will be three stories high with minarets, a crèche, a library, primary and secondary schools and even a swimming pool.

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Clongriffin

Clongriffin is a new suburb of Dublin. Born during the boom years. Planned and pristine. I drive down ‘main street’ and there are lots of new buildings, apartment blocks and shiny metal fittings. It is modern and clean. The derelict site on the left hand side of the road is the planned space for the new mosque.

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The planned site for Ireland’s largest mosque in Clongriffin

I meet Abdul Haseeb, Project Manager of Clongriffin Mosque, at what seems to be the town square. He brings me inside the freshly built shopping centre. It’s clean and spacious with lovely sparkling light fittings. But the escalators are frozen in time and all the shop spaces are empty.

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The building with the elevators frozen in time, Clongriffin

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One of the empty units, ‘A Gannon Development’, at Clongriffin

There’s plenty of activity in the building tonight as people arrive for the Ramadan event. “The guest speaker” Abdul tells me “is the son of a Jewish woman and a Pakistani man. He embraced Islam 19 years ago”.

Abdul leads me upstairs and we are met by his wife – “Lorraine O’Connor” she introduces herself. “From Coolock” she adds. A woman whose energy reminds me of the cartoon character Taz. Within minutes she has lined up a string of women for me to interview. At the same time she is conducting preparations for food, organising child-minding, and juggling queries from women and children who come to her looking for instruction or direction.

Lorraine says “no problem” when I ask if I can take a photograph of some of the women. But when she asks them they seem cagey and unsure. She tries to reassure them, telling them as she points to me “she’s fasting”. We decide to leave the photographs til later.

The talk is being held in a large room with a partition down the middle. The women wearing their hijabs are on one side and the men are on the other. The set up isn’t a far cry from Irish Catholicism of the 1950s – women on one side of the church wearing their scarves and men on the other side.

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The room from the back – Clongriffin

Lorraine gives me the go ahead to take a photograph from the back. The hijabs are a sea of colours and textures. A few women are pushing buggies or prams around trying to get babies asleep. It’s a relaxed atmosphere with people drifting in and out and around as the mood takes them.

The talk is followed by question time. A few men stand up and ask questions through a microphone. Women write their questions on pieces of paper and pass them up. I ask Lorraine why it is different for the men and women. She says “the women just prefer it this way”. Many of the questions are about how to deal with Christian family members who are against the person’s conversion to Islam.

During the talk there is a frenzy of activity in the rooms at the back of the hall as women take food out of bags and boxes. They spread plates and dishes out along the white table-clothed trestle tables. There are dishes from all over the world – recipes as diverse as the people attending the event – and brought by the women attending the event.

A friendly Moroccan woman tells me that the women prepare two dishes of whatever they are cooking. One dish goes to the men’s side and one dish goes to the women. They eat separately. There are trays of coca cola and water, bunches of bananas, bowls of dates, there are onion bhajis, pakoras, lasagne, pasta dishes, bread rolls, spicy soup, biryani dishes, biscuits, tarts, cream slices, sandwiches, pastries, rice.

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Ready for the breaking of the fast

It’s time to break the fast. It all goes remarkably smoothly. There must be a few hundred people at the event. Lorraine, as if she hasn’t enough to do, gets me soup (amazing delicious soup called harira from Morocco) and fills me a plate of food. After I’ve eaten and chatted to some more people the clean-up is underway. I realise I still have no photograph of the women. Lorraine is finally sitting down and looks exhausted. I say to her “another time” and head for home.

Over the next few days, instead of talking about my own fasting (coz I won’t be) I’ll be telling the stories of the women I met last night – converts, ex-atheists, niqqab wearing, abaya draped, women from all over the world. And I’ll also be giving details about my newest-favourite Dublin restaurant which I discovered on an Iftar hunt on Friday night.

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Delicious Moroccan ‘harira’ soup

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Iftar – the plate of food Lorraine prepares for me