By P=l + Conghaile
DUBLIN — Feel like brushing up on Islam? Dr. Nooh Al-Kaddo, executive director at Dublin’s Islamic Cultural Center, would be delighted to see you.
“These days you hear about jihad,” mused Dr. Al-Kaddo. “So the first question I expect from people is: ‘What is holy war?’ They simply want to know.”
Based on the belief that all spheres of life form an indivisible unity imbued with Islamic values, the ICC not only offers facilities for prayer on its Clonskeagh campus, but also a restaurant, shop and library in which simple questions raised at awareness courses are taken at face value.
“I don’t take insult,” the director said. “Because when I see something I don’t understand, I ask too.”
The message is timely. Of an estimated 12,500 Muslims in Ireland, 60 percent of them live in Dublin, making Islam the third-largest religion in the capital.
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Nor is Al-Kaddo slow in recognizing the difficulty of his educational mission, especially since Sept. 11. Like it or not, since the activities of a self-styled extremists propelled the world to war on that date, Muslims have been compelled to explain themselves.
In Ireland, they did so quickly and effectively. On Sept. 13, in the assembly hall at the Muslim National School in Clonskeagh, the head of religious studies, Khalil Qazi, condemned the atrocities unreservedly.
Qazi said he “made sure there was no doubt at all that from an Islamic point of view that this was wrong, this was murder, and he let the children know that under no circumstances whatsoever could this be looked upon as acceptable.”
Islam, added Imam Sheikh Hussein Halawa, the spiritual leader at the ICC, absolutely condemns “the killing of innocent people anywhere in the world, whatever their race, religion or color. We condemned what happened; we asked that the American authorities and their media not to rush to conclusions. But now who is suffering? What we are doing now is creating more terror in the world, and therefore more terrorists.”
Sheikh Hussein’s point may be unfashionable, but it comes with context. Innocent Muslims continue to suffer in Chechnya, Palestine and Kashmir, lands in which the efficacy of Western foreign policy is questionable at best.
Closer to home, Mosc -tha Cliath on Dublin’s South Circular Road was firebombed last year. Muslims are Ireland’s fastest-growing ethnic minority, but a recent survey by Amnesty International showed only 18 percent of us could bring ourselves to see them as friends.
“Generally Irish people are peaceful, friendly and helpful,” said one of 200 Muslims living in Limerick. “But in every basket of eggs, every society and religion, you’re going to find some that are rotten.”
And so there have been slurs, stone-throwing. “The day before yesterday there were three young guys and they said: ‘Look where Osama bin Laden is going.’ They pointed their fingers at me.”
There are, however, pretty stories too. Muslim children attending the mosque in Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo, have become so integrated in the town that they play Gaelic football. In the months since Sept. 11, Islamic centers at Milltown and Clonskeagh have received flowers, cards and letters of support.
“At the present time your community and ours are praying in the same way,” one letter addressed to the mosque on Roebuck Road reads. “I believe you use a phrase similar to one traditionally used here when speaking and praying about the future: ‘Please God,’ or ‘Insha’Allah.’ ”
Refreshingly, leaders of our Muslim community seem to be focusing on the support rather than the antipathy. “Isolation will not serve, and never has served, any community,” Al-Kaddo said. “A mission of our center is to educate Muslims in how to deal with non-Muslims. Because if you don’t love the society you are living in, how can you be happy there?”
Recently, for instance, Al-Kaddo explained to his children the implications of the IRA gesture on disarmament. “They said: ‘Dad you are very happy.’ I said: ‘So you should be. This is our society.’ ”
Convinced of the absolute truth of Islam, Muslims traditionally have not sought dialogue with representatives of other religions. The Islamic Foundation of Ireland, however, professes to have a relationship with the Catholic church it would like to see deepen. Both, after all, share with Judaism a belief in one all-powerful God to whom humanity is responsible for its actions, and in the certainty of the Final Judgment.
In terms of custom, too, similarities with pre-Vatican II Irish Catholicism are striking. How long ago was it that the country dropped her activities at 12 and 6 to say the Angelus? Are not Ramadan and Lent alike?
“It all came from the one, main source,” Al-Kaddo said. “We’re just talking about some differences in perspective.”
One such “perspective” that Westerners seem to take exception to, of course, is the apparent relegation of women to second class. Rabia Golden, however, who has responsibility for women’s affairs at the Islamic Center on Dublin’s South Circular Road, points out that nothing in the spirit of the Koran subjugates women to men. Social practices are a cultural issue, she says.
A Muslim for 23 years, Golden chooses to wear the hajab head covering, as all Muslim women are enjoined to do once they reach puberty. “We cover ourselves for honor and dignity,” she said. “We look on it as a matter of equality, if you like.”
Nothing intrinsic to the hajab compromises one’s work or activities. “There is no compulsion in religion,” the Koran states, and Golden opts not to cover her face. “My daughters cover their faces even though I don’t like it: but that’s up to them,” she said.
Ireland, unsurprisingly perhaps, can be hostile toward such choices. In hospitals, for instance, where Golden acts as an interpreter for pregnant or ill Muslim women, religious protocol and language difficulties have combined to give her “some very livid moments,” to put it mildly.
“Sometimes they are treated extremely inappropriately, with great bitterness and anger,” she said of the women. “In some cases they have even been refused examination.”
The Equality Act has made some difference, it transpires. “Whereas schools didn’t care what parents thought before, and forbid girls from wearing the hajab, they realize that the law expects differently now,” Golden said. “They mightn’t like it, but they have to adhere to it and it has made a difference.”
Intransigence is not unique to Catholics, of course. “I know that ethos is very important for Catholic schools too,” Rabia said. “So Muslim students should be willing to accept rules and regulations once they aren’t directly contrary to their religious beliefs.”
With a little work on both parts, she suggested, “we should be able to come to a plateau that’s reasonably agreeable.”
Such a plateau is certainly the endgame of Dr. Nooh Al-Kaddo, but it is already in operation at the Muslim National School in Clonskeagh, where the national curriculum is imbued with an Islamic edge.
“Wherever possible, Islam is threaded through the curriculum in a manner befitting the ethos,” said Principle Colm McGlade. Serving 240 children, his school teaches Arabic, the Koran and Islamic religion for roughly an hour a day, and makes provision for wudu — symbolic washing — and prayer.
“Occasionally something would be omitted: lessons on St. Patrick or St. Bridget, for instance. Just like Catholic or Church of Ireland schools won’t do something contradictory to their ethos, neither will we.”
In McGlade’s eye, creative programming on both the department and the school’s behalf has meant Muslim pupils are integrating into Irish society even before they know what the word integration means.
“In one of my years teaching here, a Malaysian child came into fourth class without a word of Irish,” he said. “By the end of the year she was one of the best. She just took to it.”
His point is that the onus lies with both sides. On one hand, just as Irish Muslims are making efforts to integrate with our Ireland’s culture, so it is imperative on Islam as a whole to inform itself about the West.
On the other, as Colm McGlade said: “I do think a lot of people outside get the wrong idea. I wouldn’t say it’s an unwillingness to understand, it’s just that they never had a reason to study it or look into it.”
Isn’t that reason here, and now?