Muslims Find a Welcoming Home in Famously Catholic Ireland

Perhaps because of its strong religious background, the nation has been more accepting of Islam than many of its European neighbors.

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DUBLIN - A new 60,000-square-foot development is likely to generate friction in any urban setting, much less a mosque in the capital of a historically Catholic country.

And yet a proposal to construct a multi-use Islamic center -- including a three-story domed mosque, school, and fitness facility -- in the north Dublin neighborhood of Clongriffin has triggered little of the anti-Muslim blowback surrounding similar projects in other parts of Europe and in the United States.

In some ways, the reaction, or lack thereof, is symbolic of the Republic of Ireland's relationship with its burgeoning Muslim population. It's one of acceptance - at least on the surface -- that is partially rooted in the successful narrative of the country's earliest Muslim immigrants, many of them university students.

"When we talk about wider Irish society, there is not that much preoccupation within public discourse with the Muslim presence in Ireland," said Oliver Scharbrodt, a professor at University College Cork and an expert on Ireland's Muslim population.

The relationship is also shaped by a long Irish history of poverty and emigration, according to some. Most notably, the Irish Potato Famine, which started in 1845 and lasted several years, killed an estimated 1 million people and drove millions more to the United States and elsewhere. The pattern of emigration carried on well into the 20th century.

"There is a history that has shaped what an Irishman is," said Said El Bauzari, a Moroccan native who moved to Ireland 14 years ago. "Any politician I listen to here in Ireland always reminds himself and the audience that we were and still are an emigrant nation. We should not forget our past, that we left home for a better future, and we should treat people who are coming to this country fairly."

Muslims make up just 1.1 percent of the 4.5 million people in Ireland, but their ranks are swelling due to immigration, domestic births, and in some cases, conversion. Two decades ago, they numbered about 4,000. In 2011, the census recorded 49,204 Muslims, including nearly 12,000 school-aged children. The numbers represent a 51 percent increase since 2006.

They are one subgroup in a rapidly diversifying country. The demographic changes were fueled in part by workers seeking opportunities during the Celtic Tiger, Ireland's economic boom that ran from the mid-1990s until 2008. Almost simultaneously, the number of asylum seekers and refugees began to climb. The once-homogenous Ireland is now 17 percent foreign-born.

In many ways, the Irish Muslim community is a cross-section of the Islamic world. It is increasingly diverse not only in origin -- members hail from dozens of different countries -- but also in education level, socioeconomic status, and in their motives for immigrating.

The first Muslims in Ireland began arriving in the 1950s, most to study medicine. The stream of students continued for decades. Many returned home, but some stayed, forged careers, married, and had children.

Ireland does not have a long history of viewing its Muslim population as a social problem, largely because those early immigrants integrated relatively easily, Scharbrodt said.

During orientation at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1994, newly arrived post-graduate scholarship student Mustafa Alawi mentioned to his guide that he would need to pray midday. He was shown the chapel, and soon the campus priest began to anticipate his daily visit.

"The Irish are very friendly people, very religious people," said Alawi, 44, a native of Bahrain who now operates a private clinic providing cosmetic procedures in the heart of Dublin. "Everybody called you doctor from the first time they saw you."

In a 2012 European Commission survey on discrimination in the European Union, 79 percent of Irish respondents described discrimination based on religion or beliefs as "rare" or "non-existent" in Ireland. Meanwhile, 66 percent of French respondents described religious discrimination in their country as "widespread."

Irish also expressed the highest comfort level of any of their European neighbors with having a member of a religious minority fill the highest elected office in Ireland.

Elsewhere in Europe, anxiety about Islam abounds. Voters in Switzerland passed a constitutional referendum in 2009 prohibiting the construction of minarets, or mosque prayer towers. In 2011, the French government implemented on a ban on the wearing of face-obscuring veils in public.

"[In France], if you have a beard like this you would never find a job," said Riadh Mahmoudi, a 35-year-old Algerian immigrant, gesturing to his chin. "My wife, for example, wears the full niqab. If she wears the niqab [in France], she would be in trouble. She would be fined. You don't see these things happen here."

To be sure, Muslims in Ireland confront their share of challenges, especially recent arrivals. During the last decade, unemployment among immigrants was consistently higher as compared to Irish nationals. That gap only widened with the onset of the economic recession.

They also face a different culture and climate, as well as a new language. Even those who arrive speaking English have struggled.

"If I talked to someone from the north [side of Dublin], I wouldn't understand anything," said Bushra Ibrahim, a 43-year-old mother of five who immigrated from Iraq a decade ago. "It is English, but it doesn't sound like English."

Head coverings worn by some Muslim women in Ireland sometimes attract unwanted attention. Ibrahim said that once she was approached by half a dozen teenagers who addressed her as "Paki" and told her to "go home."

Isolated incidents aside, Ibrahim and other Muslims said they find parity between their own faith life and their adopted country's conservative religious history. They like that the Catholic-dominated education system offers numerous single-sex schools, and said that school officials typically accommodate the needs of Muslim students, including dietary restrictions and uniform modifications.

"The articulation of a religious identity in the public arena is not seen to be that problematic," Scharbrodt said. "In Ireland, religion and politics have always been connected together."

The story of Muslims in Ireland will likely grow more complicated in the coming years, Scharbrodt said. The community is no longer made up entirely of students and professionals, but now includes many asylum seekers with little education and few skills.

The socioeconomic shift has broad implications. There is a certain nostalgia among long-established Muslims for an earlier time when members of the religious minority were closely associated with education and elite career fields, Scharbrodt said.

What's more, some children of Muslim immigrants could find themselves straddling two worlds and not really feeling at home in either, a reality for many young people in other parts of Europe, Scharbrodt said.

Still, Muslims said they see a bright future as they carve out a place for their faith in Ireland. It will likely include plenty of growth -- the population is projected to hit 125,000 by 2030, according to an analysis published by the Pew Research Center.

After being approved by the Dublin City Council in March, the proposed Clongriffin Islamic center is now under appeal -- but the biggest complaints about the project aren't its purpose, but rather over its size and potential impact on traffic.

"Once you make this place your home, and once your neighbor feels okay with you becoming his neighbor and that you have made your home next door to him, that is integration," El Bauzari. "For me, it has already happened. My neighbors are Irish. My kids go with Irish kids to school. I think it is really a positive story to tell from this country."