The Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland (photo: Joseph Burke)
Islam in Ireland

''The Kids Are Good Now''

Up until the 1990s there was virtually no immigration to Ireland. However, the economic boom of the "Celtic Tiger" led to a huge increase in the number of Muslim professionals in the country. Have Ireland's Muslim communities been influenced by the financial crisis? Joseph Burke takes a look

Tightly squeezed between a Chinese takeaway and an Internet café is Limerick's Al-Noor Mosque. Typical for most Irish Muslims, Limerick's community uses non-purpose built facilities. From its first floor windows one can see St John's Cathedral, an 1861 Catholic church and the tallest spired structure in Ireland. It casts a long shadow.

A curious dynamic is currently at play in Europe. On the one hand, looking outwards, a post-Iraq-war Europe declares itself to be more cognisant of Muslim perceptions of its military activities. Also, European publics are revaluating stale understandings of the relationship between Islam and democracy in the light of recent Arab upheavals. On the other hand, looking inwards, many European governments are responding to the worrying surge in support for the extreme right by bringing a pointed focus on its Muslim populations. Palpable is the lack of moral coherence needed to balance genuine worries for women's rights against the serious danger of ostracising a whole set of diverse communities.

This dynamic is, of course, operating within an unprecedented socio-economic crisis for the European Union. It is also accentuated by this crisis. How is this dynamic playing out in the nooks and crannies of Europe?

Failure was destiny

Over coffee and a generous slice of cake, Issa Timan, manager of Al-Noor Mosque, says that "times are getting a little bit harder". Relying on 10- and 20-cent donations to cover rent and bills, he says "the economy broke down and we have broken down as well."

Al-Noor Mosque in Limerick city (photo: Joseph Burke)
There were approximately 32,000 Muslims in Ireland in 2006; most of Ireland's local Muslim communities have to make do with non-purpose built facilities for their mosques

​​Ireland's self-image was long that of the underdog. Failure was destiny and whoever failed was, ultimately, a little Irish. This dubious image imploded following a spectacular economic rise where the country's real GDP level doubled in a decade. Those boom years – now perceived as dreamlike – were a profound period of transition for the make-up of Irish society. Within a wider trend of inward migration, the number of Muslims in Ireland jumped from 3,875 in 1991 to 19,147 in 2002 to 32,539 in 2006; a trajectory that is expected to persist in a state of just 4.2 million.

Though Muslims account for less than 1 per cent of the population, Islam is now the third largest religion after Catholicism and the Church of Ireland; a significant fact where the Roman Catholic Church was recognised as having a "special position" in the country's constitution as late as 1972. While 30 per cent of Muslims in Ireland are Irish citizens, the remainder span some 42 nationalities. Predominantly Sunni, there are also approximately 2,000 Shia members.

A sponge for skilled workers

Today's community can be traced back to aspiring students of the 1950s, predominantly at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. The recent expansion has two main causes. First, Ireland became a sponge for skilled workers: there are now approximately 6,000 Muslim workers who are considered higher professionals in the country; a further 3,000 are employers or managers. Secondly, Ireland gained wider recognition as a safe place for those seeking refuge. From 392 in 1994, Ireland received a peak of 11,634 asylum applications in 2002.

The severity of Ireland's economic fall threatened the Eurozone. Indeed, some of the country's 4,000 or so Muslim medical staff emigrated after direct and indirect wage cuts and worsening working conditions. However, Ali Selim, resident theologian at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Dublin, claims that most Muslims have been insulated from the crisis by avoiding the cheap credit that has strangled many Irish households: "Our religion saved us from that."

Incidents of racism

Issa Timan, manager of Al-Noor Mosque in Limerick (photo: Joseph Burke)
Although the resident theologian at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Dublin claims that Islam saved most Muslims in Ireland from the worst excesses of Ireland's economic boom and bust era because they avoided the cheap credit offered by Irish banks, Issa Timan, manager of Al-Noor Mosque in Limerick, says that the Muslim community has indeed been affected by the financial crisis

​​According to the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency 2010 Annual Report, Ireland has seen a 24 per cent increase in racist crime between 2000 and 2008. This marked the third largest increase in the EU, behind Denmark and Slovakia. Denise Charlton, CEO of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, says: "Incidents of racism seem to have risen because of the recession, or certainly that is the perception of those accessing that [anti-racism] service." An imperfect system for recording racist incidents in Ireland makes it hard to identify Islamophobia reliably.

The National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism, an independent expert body, had documented racist instances by type but was dissolved after cuts in government funding. Mr Selim is regretful: "We worked in cooperation with some of these organisations in terms of presenting literature, in terms of organising seminars and conferences, and chairing discussions, but these organisations are done now. They are not here anymore."

A new coalition government, elected in March after over a decade in opposition, is now scrambling to make sense of Ireland's public finances and the way ahead. One quiet but significant change has been the transformation of the former governmental 'Office for Integration' to the new 'Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration', which moves from the former Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs to the new Department of Justice and Equality.

The earlier state body had undertaken a number of initiatives to manage the changing face of Irish society and noted that Islamic groups demonstrate "an openness and engagement that is evident throughout the country." It had been allocated € 5.745 million for 2011 but this may yet leak into other areas following the recent institutional rearrangement.

Wealth and faith

Ireland is changing in ways that are ambiguous for Muslims. Unparalleled wealth intensified processes of secularisation. In 1973–74, 91 per cent of Irish people attended church at least once weekly, by 2006 only 25 per cent of those under 35 did so. A diminished role for the Catholic Church could undercut less overt forms of structural discrimination in areas such as education, where 91 per cent of schools remain under its patronage. It could also indicate a general apathy towards religion. Also, Ireland's fixation with political cleavages left over from the Civil War has had a moderating effect, saving it from substantial lunges to the left or right.

If twenty first-century Ireland realigns itself along a left-right axis, as opposed to historical events less familiar to an increasing number, this would be an uncertain development for Muslims in Ireland.

Crucial, of course, will be the guidance provided by Islamic authorities themselves. In this respect, however, the signs are positive: "The leadership of the Muslim community has been very strong so when there has been a catastrophe in other countries, like the 7/7 bombing in London, they have come out very strongly with positive leading statements," says Ms Charlton.

Mr Selim sums up today's uncertainty: "The change of mood is something that has not shown, or has not been manifested in Ireland, but you can see that in other countries. Whether that will happen in Ireland or not, the coming few years will tell us." Managing genuine and imagined differences will require perseverance and patience of both Muslim and non-Muslim groups, unsure of their long-term financial sustainability.

At Limerick's inner-city Al-Noor Mosque, Mr Timan recalls local kids urinating and smoking in the hall downstairs and stealing the shoes of praying Muslims. Is this Islamophobic behaviour? "No," he says, "they're just kids. You have to be kind with them. They are good now."

Joseph Burke

© 2011

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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