In October, actor and director Ben Affleck appeared on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher to promote his new film, Gone Girl, and inadvertently got caught up in an angry defence of Islam and Muslim people against Maher and Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, author and anti-religionist.
“Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas,” Harris said, causing Affleck to throw his hands up in disbelief. “It’s gross, it’s racist,” Affleck responded. “How about the more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical?” Footage of the exchange went viral, with nearly 1,500,000 views on youtube and countless shares on social media.
Since the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, a polarised approach to Islam has been back on the rise; words like jihadi, fundamentalist and extremist are being bandied about in the US media with alarming regularity.
For Muslims living in Ireland, the daily realities of reconciling their faith with integration into Irish society can be problematic. On Shandon Street in Cork, the Islamic Information Centre, owned and run by Dr Farghal Radwan, a consultant anaesthetist who has lived in Ireland for 27 years, provides a place for Muslims from over 40 countries to meet, study, pray and socialise. Over 5,000 Muslim people live in Cork.
Dr Radwan is originally from Egypt. He’s married to an Irish woman who converted to Islam before they met, and feels very much at home in Ireland. “I have five kids, born in Cork, Dublin and Galway – they’re all born in Ireland,” he said.
“There’s a lot of distortion of the Islamic image with what’s happening in the world so we’re showing the proper image of Islam and trying to protect against extremists, against radicalism, by showing people that Islam is a religion of peace,” Dr Radwan said, sipping coffee in his office in the centre before eight o’clock prayers.
As eight o’clock approached, a group of 30 or so men assembled in the centre to pray. In a small carpeted room to one side, children were being instructed in their faith by a smiling young man. The women’s prayer area was empty. Men from Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Algeria, Bangladesh and other countries stood shoulder to shoulder to begin their prayer.
Despite Dr Radwan’s assertion that Islam is a religion of peace, looking around the room at the nationalities represented was a stark reminder of the recent history of conflict in the Muslim world. After their prayer, I asked some of the people who gathered in Dr Radwan’s office why they thought their countries have experienced so much unrest. “Why? Because lots of money, lots of oil, lots of gas,” shrugged Mohammed Yacine, who comes from Algeria. Around the room, heads nodded in agreement.
The ongoing bloodshed in Iraq and Syria is heavily focused on oil-producing areas such as Mosul, strategically important due to its proximity to the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, and Kobane, in the oil-rich Syrian Kurdish region of Rojava. There has been wide coverage of ISIS reportedly focusing their efforts on seizing oil infrastructure.
Dr Radwan believes the divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims, so much a feature of the western media narrative in examining how a group like ISIS could grow so powerful, is being manipulated to provoke discord: “What’s happening in the world is that there are some people trying to provoke the differences. That’s the problem in the Middle East, in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq. There are differences in people’s beliefs and in how they practise their religion and some people, who are aggravating the problem, benefit from continuing the unrest.”
Whoever may be benefiting from unrest in the Middle East, it certainly isn’t the huge numbers of ordinary people whose displacement is creating a humanitarian crisis as they seek refuge in neighbouring countries. The people in Dr Radwan’s office all had first-hand experiences to share.
Abbas Ramadan is Lebanese. He moved to Ireland with his Swedish wife, and works for one of Cork’s large multinationals. Lebanon is bearing the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis. According to the UNHCR, an estimated 1.1 million Syrians, nearly a quarter of the Lebanese population, are seeking refuge in Lebanon. Abbas last visited home in June. “The situation is now becoming unsafe. We are trying to protect the borders to prevent the crisis from moving from Syria into Lebanon.”
Kamal el Taib, from Sudan, came to Ireland as an asylum seeker. He now runs a translation service. He was despondent when describing the current situation in Sudan, where members of his extended family still live in peril: “The war started in 1993 so the people who were born then are 21 years old now, and they know nothing but killing and guns. They have no culture. There are no schools, no hospitals. From five or six years old, they are given a gun and told to kill.” He shook his head sadly.
Sixteen-year-old Osama Shamiri is from Iraq, but also lived in Syria for five years as his father searched for a place where his family would be safe. When I asked him if he ever thinks of his friends in Iraq, he smiled and shook his head. “Most of them either are dead or out of contact by now so it really doesn’t matter anymore,” he said.
Osama, who is a skilled orator and is thinking of studying law, had to adjust to fit in to an Irish school because of the discrepancy between his own experiences and those of Irish teenagers. “I laughed and cracked jokes. I showed myself to be impartial to what’s going on and people believed that,” he said. “Basically I hid in a mask that people would understand because they wouldn’t understand me if I kept on rambling about how things were going in Iraq. I pretended to be like them.”
Last year, Dr Radwan’s facility became the centre of a dispute with Councillor Ken O’Flynn over opening hours, with fears that the building, formerly a medical clinic, was not suitable for use as a designated place of worship.
He has applied for planning permission for a sports café and gym on the ground floor of the building. Dr Radwan said that his intention was to create a café not only for the Islamic community, but for everyone in the area: “It would be good to have somewhere to enjoy yourself without alcohol – to come and watch a match, some rugby or football.”
With Irish social life revolving around alcohol, somewhere to go to watch the match that’s family friendly and alcohol-free seems like a good idea, but some local residents have objected. Is this because of anti-Islamic sentiment? Dr Radwan acknowledged that this was a part of the problem. “People are afraid. I’ve said that our doors are open, all you have to do is come in,” he said.
“But the media destroy the image of Islam. You can see yourself. Now they screen Muslims going through all the airports. I mean, it happens all the time. You go through an airport and they say, ‘This is a random screening’. And then they pick you! And this is random? But this is the atmosphere nowadays…but we are living through it and accepting it.”