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May edition 2010

Dreaming of an Islamist Ireland

It is a dispiriting business trying to convince the Republic of Ireland's politicians or liberal elite that trouble lies ahead if they fail to avoid the mistakes made in Britain regarding Islamism. Due to my well-known track record as a virulent critic of Sinn Fein/IRA, I am typecast as unhelpful. In most debates in Ireland, I am Cassandra to my opponents' Pangloss. "Why do you always have to be so negative?" they say when I speak of dodgy mosques, hidden agendas, dangerous fundamentalists and worrying precedents with headgear. "There's no problem. Our Muslims aren't like those Muslims you have in England. Our Muslims are lovely."

Irish Muslims
Gaining ground: Muslim students in Ireland protest against "discrimination"

This blithe belief is based on a vague assumption that homicidal Muslims in the UK are all illiterate unassimilated Pakistanis who have been understandably radicalised by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The perception has been that all our nice educated diverse domestic Muslims would understand that the Irish people as a whole were fervently anti-war and therefore remain content and anxious to integrate.

Radical Islam is producing a variation on Ireland's long history of being an unwitting pawn in Continental wars. Over the centuries, French, Italians, Spaniards and Germans have been dispatched for wholly cynical reasons to aid uprisings against English rule. Now Islamic jihadists are using the Republic as a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks on the West. Dublin is a centre of Muslim Brotherhood activity, zealots are pushing the familiar policy of exceptionalism to encourage the separation between Muslim and kuffar (non-believing heretics) that is a vital stage in Islamification. There is plenty of Arab money to finance Sunnis and promote Wahhabism, and niqabs and burqas are beginning to appear in public places. Shias number only about 5,000, and whereas a decade ago they were stressing a common faith with Sunnis, since an influx of Iraqis in the past decade there is a sectarian divide emerging which is reminiscent of the Irish Catholic versus Protestant past.

Immigration, let alone Muslim immigration, is new to Ireland, which is vulnerable to those from exotic cultures who speak peace but mean jihad. The Republic's 1991 census showed 3,900 Muslims, mostly students and traders, but with a booming economy, Ireland of the early 1990s became an attractive destination for asylum seekers, refugees from Bosnia, Kosovo and Somalia and economic immigrants. By 2006, of a population of just under 4.5 million, 32,500 were Muslims — an increase of 70 per cent on 2002. The educated guess is that between births, new immigrants, students and a tiny but steady trickle of converts, there are probably by now more than 40,000, coming from around 40 different nationalities, with the majority from Asia or Africa. Around a third have Irish nationality. Muslims are now the republic's third largest faith group.

There seemed little interest from official Ireland in 2005 in the revelation that Abbas Boutrab, an Algerian al-Qaeda operative of many aliases imprisoned in Belfast for planning to blow up planes over the US, had lived in Dublin for four years. And the establishment seemed unmoved in December 2006 by a TV documentary featuring Irish-based lay and clerical Muslims warning that radicals were indoctrinating Irish youth and begging the authorities to take the threat seriously. An opinion poll showing that 57 per cent of Muslims under 26 in Ireland wanted an Islamic state and that 19 per cent sympathised with Osama bin Laden demonstrated that there was now a decent-sized sea for terrorists to swim in. The programme featured a Dublin-based British-born Pakistani, Ismail Kotwal, who had studied at a Karachi madrassa, used an inner-city warehouse as a mosque where around 800 attended Friday prayers, had his own madrassa in inner-city Dublin and taught religion to Muslim students at a south Dublin boys' school run by the Roman Catholic De La Salle brothers. Two boys walked out of his class when he praised bin Laden as a good and God-fearing man. But when their fathers complained, the school muttered something and did nothing. Kotwal has told a journalist that since he did not know bin Laden personally, he could not condemn him. He explained he was promoting the establishment of an Islamic bank, "as Muslims cannot buy houses here and they are isolated. This is the kind of good integration I want."

The libel laws in Ireland are even more restrictive than those in the UK, yet Radio Telefis Eireann was confident enough of its facts to name a Dublin resident of 25 years, Ibrahim Buisir, of Libyan and Irish nationality, who headed an NGO thought to be fundraising indirectly for al-Qaeda. His contacts allegedly included Osama bin Laden's private secretary. Although he had been named by the US Treasury as having directed an al-Qaeda cell, and was monitored by the Irish police, it was not until the spring of 2008, when Libya wanted him for alleged terror offences and Interpol had issued a global arrest warrant, that Buisir fled Ireland.

The programme also touched on the Islamic Cultural Centre in Dublin, but did not have time to go into the scarier details of its role as an HQ for the Muslim Brotherhood. Financed by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the deputy ruler of Dubai, it opened in 1996 on a four-acre site in Clonskeagh alongside a mosque and a school. The centre is run by the Al-Maktoum Foundation, all of whose directors are from the United Arab Emirates, and it houses the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR), the Muslim Brotherhood front-organisation created in 1997, whose president is Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. He visits Ireland only occasionally, but he is the spiritual leader of those who claim to speak for Sunnis. The ECFR general secretary, the Egyptian Hussein Mohammed Halawa, is also the imam of Clonskeagh mosque. Although his English is so bad he speaks to journalists through an interpreter, he is also chairman of the 14-strong Irish Council of Imams. Currently, the Department of Foreign Affairs insists that official translations from Arabic into English be done at Clonskeagh mosque — an interesting venue for persecuted Christian asylum-seekers from, say, Egypt. Qaradawi, Ken Livingstone's "progressive" chum, is indeed the modernist — if not the moderate — he is represented as being. Is he not a televangelist, with populist websites? Does he not say that female genital mutilation — though desirable — is optional? Does he not endorse the right of women to be suicide bombers? Does he not charge their husbands to beat them only lightly? Nor is he hung-up on methods of dealing with homosexuals: should no cliffs be available to chuck them off, stoning or burning are acceptable.

Even if the elite showed little interest in the television revelations, moderate Muslims were frightened, Irish police and intelligence stepped up their activity and as in the UK, the man and woman in the street heard the alarm bells before their masters did. A 2007 poll showed that 47 per cent agreed that Islamic fundamentalism posed a serious threat to Ireland.

As the Muslim population is disproportionately young, it is the younger Irish that are most curious about those people who live parallel existences alongside them at university. There is lively debate on mpac.ie, the Irish Muslim Public Affairs Committee's website. Now receiving more than 250,000 hits a month, it is run by an Irishman, Liam Egan, aka Muhajid. He and his British wife were members of the International Church of Christ, which believed that all except its adherents were bound for hell, but they converted to Islam in 1995. In the autumn of 2008, he insisted that his daughter Shekinah be allowed to wear the hijab at school in Wexford, which precipitated much media coverage and impassioned debate of the kind that Egan revels in. The principal agreed, and the Department of Education ruled that all schools were free to allow the hijab. It was a victory for exceptionalism and separation.

On his website, Egan savages Israel and the US, urges that Ireland submit to sharia as a patriotic duty, attacks the Islamophobia and discrimination he sees everywhere, demands separate Muslim schools, dispenses theological advice to the worried and engages in vigorous and often entertaining debate with the kuffar. Having claimed that Irish Jews were implicated in the murder in Dubai of Hamas's Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, he has recently been reported to the Irish police for hate crime.

In February, at the University College Cork Law Society, I learned a lot when I debated on Islam and the West against Dr Azzam Tamimi, a British citizen operating in London as Hamas's apologist. There are no religious societies permitted in Cork (although bizarrely, there is an Atheist Society), but there is a Muslim Cultural Society (which had just hosted Islam Awareness Week) and about half the audience were Muslims, mostly from the medical school. The long row of young women wore dark, drab hijabs and jilbabs. Having given a poor speech with anti-Semitic undertones about how Islam had come into being to liberate the oppressed, he became red-faced with incredulity when I explained to the audience what he and his hero stood for: suicide bombings, destruction of Israel, worldwide Caliphate, imposition of sharia and so on. He was in such a sulk that he refused his right of reply and later, during questions, announced that he was upset and his feelings were hurt by all the terrible lies I had told about him and his hero, Qaradawi, the Nelson Mandela of Islam. When I suggested he should grow up and learn to engage in robust debate, shared with the audience his having said on an Arabic TV programme that anyone not wanting the Caliphate should live on the planet of the apes, and reminded him that taqiyya (a dispensation to lie) was a part of his religion, Tamimi lost his cool sufficiently to shout: "Yes. So what, I want a Caliphate," and raved about the Zionists stealing his house.

I learned three important points from this debate. First, outside his comfort zone Tamimi is easy meat — an intellectually tenth-rate, one-trick pony. Second, the Muslim students seemed completely unmoved by the revelations about him and were all on message. One girl spoke, crying as she told us movingly of the beauty of sharia as a way of life: she was a moderate, she explained, so wanted sharia in Ireland only for Muslims. Tamimi is a celeb who was mobbed afterwards (girls hanging back giggling until the end, of course) by Muslims wanting to be photographed with him. Third, the non-Muslim students were stifled by a terror of causing offence by criticising Islam in any way: one even castigated himself for having been shocked by the sharia approval of wife-beating until a Muslim girl had explained to him why she had no problem with it. I had lost the debate, of course, but afterwards, in the bar, several of the young were pleasingly appalled by what they had learned.

Historically, the colleges of the National University of Ireland did not allow the study of religion, but in 2007 University College Cork opened a Department of the Study of Religions, which is now carrying out a government-funded research project on Muslims in Ireland. Launched by the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, a local MP whose espousing of the cause of Gaza is popular in a country where Israel is seen as an oppressor, it is being conducted by graduates of the London School of African and Oriental Studies. One is an expert on Japanese Buddhism, another on Turkish orthodoxy and a third — who is married to a Palestinian — on Bahai and reform movements in Islam. None has any competence in the Irish context. There is no independent think-tank in Ireland devoted to the study of Islam — although Dialogue Ireland, a modestly-funded trust which has battled Christian cultism and achieved considerable success against Scientology, is now turning its attention to Islamism.

In March, the Irish media were entranced by the story of Colleen LaRose from Pennsylvania, who on the net under the alias Jihad Jane had allegedly recruited several Irish-based Muslims to assist in murdering Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist who had sketched Muhammad as a roundabout dog (a form of street installation). The seven arrested in Ireland included another convert, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez of Colorado, who was later released and charged in the US with conspiracy.

Shia Imam Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been warning of Sunni radicalism for years, gave "I-told-you-so" interviews about the increase in Ireland of the number of Muslims who resist integration and the rise of extremism and the indoctrination of Irish youth. The radical preachers operate largely in secret and, as in Britain, the majority of Muslims are mostly inhibited by loyalty or intimidated into silence.

Consider all this against the background of a country where the economy has imploded and the Roman Catholic Church is mired in scandal. There is a spiritual craving in Ireland, some of which is being met by Christian evangelists, but there are plenty of Islamic evangelists at work on further radicalising young Irish Muslims.

Qaradawi has called for the conquest of Rome and Liam Egan is carrying the standard. "As the long-awaited demise continues unabated," he told his readers, "it is upon us as Muslims to rise to the occasion and present Islam as the only religion worthy in the eyes of Allah. It would be a shame to miss such an opportunity to assert the rightful place of Islam in this land. It truly is time to put the green back in Eire."

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards