Since moving to Ireland in late 2003, Dr Umar Al-Qadri has become a prominent figure in representing the Islamic voice in Ireland. Having received a traditional Islamic education in Pakistan, Al-Qadri went on to obtain a master’s degree in Islamic Sciences. Making frequent appearances in Irish publications like the Irish Times, he also lectures across the country in mosques, community centres and universities about Islam and the the challenges that Muslims face today.
For Al-Qadri, the integration of the Muslim community into wider Irish society is something of a priority. In Ireland, there are now an estimated 70,000 members of the Muslim community, and at home and abroad, Muslims are increasingly facing marginalisation, persecution and criticism. As the spotlight is placed on Muslims the world over, I sit down with Al-Qadri, the Head-Imam of Al-Mustafa Islamic Educational and Cultural Centre Ireland, in Trinity’s Science Gallery café to discuss our Muslim community here and the challenges they face.
Our Muslim community is not immune to the sensationalised and inaccurate representation the religion sometimes receives in the media across the world. Neither too do they avoid the fate of being too often rendered largely invisible within Irish society. Al-Qadri’s response to this is to stress the idea of people all living as one. He stands for equality and mutual respect between groups as something essential for modern nations, an ideology that informs many of his own actions.
Our interview begins with Al-Qadri tracing the origins of Ireland’s Islamic history to one man, Mir Aulad Ali Khan, one of Dublin’s first Muslims, as well as a scholar and professor of religious studies in Trinity in the 1860s. Al-Qadri describes him as very well integrated, and who at the same time maintained his own identity and wore his traditional Muslim clothing. It was only in the 1950s, however, that Muslim students began to come from South Africa to Ireland to study medicine. It was these students who formed the first Muslim community to establish themselves here. This tradition, continuing throughout the 1990s, allowed for a well-educated Muslim population to develop in Ireland. Since then, the numbers have grown from 33,000 in 2003 to upwards of 70,000 now, Al-Qadri tells me. The community has changed too. While it was previously based around the medical and scholarly professions, it now represents a diverse group of people from many walks of life, ranging from taxi drivers to IT professionals. Often, he adds, you cannot tell a Muslim apart from any other Irish person. They often do not have dark skin, while many choose not to wear traditional Muslim dress, he explains, gesturing down towards his sharply tailored suit. He humorously adds that perhaps only the beard would give it away.
Muslims, when they have friends that are consuming alcohol … they will interact together, but they won’t drink themselves and they will not treat the person that drinks alcohol differently. But they will treat someone who is gay differently, and that is something that is not understandable.
Al-Qadri’s early years were spent in the Netherlands, where the he remained until he’d completed secondary school. He highlights this time as a formative period in his own ideological development: “I wouldn’t be the same person I am if I didn’t grow up in the Netherlands … I think my ideas have been shaped by my experience growing up in the Netherlands as a second generation Muslim.” It was there he witnessed first-hand the challenges that many Muslims face across Europe. The years he spent here were during a period of Dutch history characterised by the dominance of right-wing conservatives, who were in finally in government after years of steadily increasing their vote in elections. The party, which he describes as “anti-Muslim and anti-Islam”, pushed Muslims to live in isolation and caused them to be segregated from the greater population. The reason that Al-Qadri believes that these problems arose is because the “Muslim communities that lived in the Netherlands somehow failed to reach out to the other and failed to integrate”. By this he means integration beyond purely language and dress, with the community perhaps not doing enough to counter those who sought to marginalise them.
Motivated by the desire to do something for his religion, Al-Qadri wanted to avoid making the same mistakes in the newly-diverse Ireland’s young Muslim community. In an earlier stage of development and with an educated and professional Muslim population, he perhaps thought he could help Irish Muslims and write a different narrative for the minority group. The way in which to achieve this, he believes, is by reaching out. This, after all, is the teaching of the Prophet Mohammed, he tells me, who “welcomed communities and opened the doors of the Mosque to others”. This is something that Al-Qadri firmly holds to be true.
He believes that Muslims often isolate themselves in an effort to protect their faith and identity, something that is, in fact, damaging for the community. “We are living in a society where people do accept and tolerate other views. We should reach out and not be afraid”, he urges his fellow Muslims. His recent invitation to members of the LGBT community to the mosque’s end of Ramadan meal in June reflected this sentiment of inclusion. “As Muslims we must reach out to others’’, he says, “we must not treat people differently because of their lifestyle or beliefs”. Although such an expression of kindness and support appears radical in relation to the more stereotypical image the religion being strongly doctrinal, Al-Qadri cites the teachings of Islam as the foundation for his argument, where you must treat people as human beings first – something which he says has been lost among many Muslims.
Nonetheless his actions were still somewhat radical, and he came under criticism from the group that he represents for reaching out in this way. Some felt that this gesture was akin to him condoning homosexuality, but in the face of the controversy, he stands by his actions. “Inviting them does not mean that we condone or that we agree with [homosexuality]”, he explains. “It means that despite our disagreement we can still share a meal together”. Although he does not condone the act, he believes that the LGBT community, like Muslims, share similarities. The two minority groups have both been marginalised and should join together against a common injustice. He gives a practical example to support his decision to invite LGBT members to the event, which he hopes that Muslims will be able to appreciate, drawing a comparison between the two Islamic sins of drinking alcohol and homosexuality: “Muslims, when they have friends that are consuming alcohol, they would be okay with it, they will sit down together, they will interact together, but they won’t drink themselves and they will not treat the person that drinks alcohol differently. But they will treat someone who is gay differently, and that is something that is not understandable”. Al-Qadri emphasises that the teachings of Islam are to treat people as humans first, and the success of the meal, which had over over 20 LGBT members alongside some Muslims all enjoying themselves together, stands as testament to that.