VICTORIA WHITE: Playing the race card will only poison our national melting pot

WE were all new to this country once. My people sailed into Cobh and built their churches on the hills of Cork. There weren’t too many Congregationalists round the city in the early years of the last century, but my grandfather integrated quickly.

He brought a wife over from England and they raised their three children here. My father won a scholarship to university and became one of RTÉ’s founding journalists. He saw himself as a nation-builder and so do I.

When I hear Fianna Fáil councillor Ken O’Flynn complaining that the Cork Dawah Centre on Shandon St is operating as a mosque I take it personally. That could be my church. He says his constituents can’t sleep because of the goings-on at the centre: “When my constituents ring me at 11 o’clock at night I take it very seriously.”

I’ll bet he does. He’s relying on them to elect him again next year. He’s resorting to the “divide and conquer” tactics beloved of Irish politicians, except that up to now most of them have stayed clear of religion and race. I have been very proud of this fact. I never tire of telling foreign visitors that we have no serious political party in this country which plays the race card.

Ken O’Flynn argued cogently on radio on Tuesday that he hasn’t an anti-Muslim bone in his body. I believe him. But some of his constituents do. That’s why they’re complaining that people are going in and out of the Dawah Centre at night.

They’re not complaining about people stopping for King Prawns at the Jumbo Chinese. They’re not complaining about people stopping for a one and one at a chipper. But Muslims going in and out of a building on Shandon Street constitute a problem.

There is a serious issue here in that Cork City Council granted permission for a cultural centre on Shandon Street, not a mosque, and they stipulated that it should only be used between the hours of 9am and 7pm, Monday to Saturday.

Before that decision was made last summer, Councillor O’Flynn was loud in his support of constituents who argued against a mosque on the site, arguing that it would cause issues with “parking and noise pollution”.

The city council is now investigating the centre for operating as a mosque and outside the stipulated hours. O’Flynn says you can’t “put two fingers up to the Council”. I should see his point, but I don’t, really. I don’t believe there should be any reason to stop Muslims establishing a church in Cork’s historic inner city. We should be grateful to them for coming and ask them to throw us a prayer now and then.

I live between two mosques in Dublin, one Shi’ite, one Sunni, and I love them both. The Shi’ite mosque, quiet and hard by the River Dodder, water being a source of inspiration in the Muslim tradition. The Sunni mosque, the Clonskeagh Islamic Cultural Centre is a thumping big complex where I buy dates and chickpeas and get a break from the banality of the suburbs.

Neither of them causes any trouble. And yet I’ve heard it all: “The traffic when they all go to the mosque on Friday! We can’t get our cars out! It’s a disgrace!” That’s why we have to be so very careful. Anti-Muslim feeling is easily stirred. It is not only wrong, it is dangerous, because it might radicalise some elements in the Muslim community. The kind of young men who were recruited to the IRA by the actions of the British Army on Bloody Sunday.

To our eternal shame, we are going the right way about it. Muslim boys living in the environs of the Clonskeagh Mosque are having difficulty getting places in local schools. Young Ilyes Medbou expected to graduate from Our Lady’s Grove primary school in Clonskeagh to St Benildus College in Kilmacud last year but his application was rejected. The principal wrote: “Because of the unlikely event of a vacancy arising we strongly advise that your investigate other secondary schools.”

His Algerian family was stunned because their five girls had progressed to the local Jesus and Mary College and St Benildus was portrayed by Our Lady’s Grove as a natural progression for boys.

Salem Swal-Akari, from Libya, was equally stunned to be told in 2011 that his young son Muhand would not be granted a place in St Benildus, despite the fact that two of his brothers had graduated from the college and another was in sixth year.

He was told he belonged to “category seven” of applicants, coming after sons of Catholic parents, boys with one Catholic parent, boys whose two parents had converted to Catholicism, boys who had one parent converted to Catholicism and boys who had Christian parents.

Swal-Akari promptly took his sixth-year boy out of the school and found a school for the boys elsewhere.

The enrolment criteria of the school were updated and simplified last year, putting an emphasis on Catholicism.

Abdulrahman Ouadria, whose father is from Algeria, was the only boy in St Laurence’s National School, Kilmacud, who was not offered a place at nearby St Benildus College in 2009. He was offered a place in Oatlands College, Stillorgan, but his family found the religious and cultural activities contrary to their tradition.

His father took him out of class periodically, but this proved impractical. Discipline issues arose, and Swal-Akari took his son out of the school. Meanwhile, Oatlands College updated its admissions policy to emphasise that Catholic students would get priority, and Abdulrahman’s brother Ibrahim was refused admission for 2012. The family appealed to the Department of Education, which ruled in their favour, saying Ibrahim’s application had not been treated in a “fair and reasonable manner.” But Ibrahim and his brother Abdullah refused to take their places in protest at their elder brother Abdulrahman’s treatment at the school. All three boys began commuting 10 miles a day to school and were reported to be doing well. What terrible lessons these boys have learned. Councillor O’Flynn claims “There’s something wrong with society these days, people are afraid to be called a racist and accepting things they shouldn’t.” That’s because racism in the form of Islamaphobia is so dangerous, Ken. Let’s not pretend we don’t know it’s the major faultline in our world today. The Halawa siblings from Clonskeagh, arrested for protesting against the deposing of Mohammed Morsi and are still in jail.

So far this country has been tolerant of Islam and Muslims have integrated well. But we can’t pretend we’re incapable of mindless bigotry. All we need is leadership and we could throw away our priceless social cohesion.

Before we do that, let’s pause and remember that we all come from families founded by men and women who once stepped onto this island and called it “new.”

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