“Today’s Ireland is not yesterday’s Ireland”, Dr Ali Selim, a lecturer in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies and chairman of the newly founded South Dublin Muslim Board, says in conversation with The University Times. The impending general election is coming at a pivotal juncture for Ireland’s economic recovery, but its result will also have a significant impact on this country’s increasingly diverse society. The board has been created by Selim and eight other members in an effort to get “the Muslim community actively involved in voting and encourage them to just go and vote for what [they] believe to be the right approach”.
It is estimated that there are currently about 65,000 Muslims living in Ireland, with this number expected to reach over 100,000 within five years. While this only represents less than 1.5 per cent of the population, Islam is one of the world’s fastest growing religions, with 44 million Muslims living in Europe. The doctrines and culture that Islam perpetuates have repeatedly been placed under increasing scrutiny in recent years, with the rise of the so-called Islamic State and a rise in terrorist attacks attributed to those claiming to act in the name of the religion. Reaffirming that these individuals do not represent Islam is something that many Muslim clerics are called upon to do in western societies, but often social issues lead to these incidences being ignored. Ireland has not experienced extremism in the same way that countries such as the United Kingdom have, but Selim is keen to express that this board seeks to help with the integration of the Muslim community into Irish political life. Speaking to The University Times, Selim stresses that “the point is this is a law abiding board” and calls on Muslims to engage in the upcoming general election: “Political participation is an essential requirement of democracy and democracy is a great value of the country that we live in.”
Presently there are only two Muslim primary schools in the state and none at second level.
The board held its launch on January 15th in the Clayton Hotel in Leopardstown, where it outlined its general aims. An Irish Times article quoted board members encouraging Muslims in Ireland to become “more active citizens” in anticipation of the general election. Their sincerity was underlined by the fact that the Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, and representatives from political parties and independents were in attendance.
An aspect of political parties’ campaigns that has been of particular interest to students is funding towards education. Education is one of Selim’s central aims for the board. Presently there are only two Muslim primary schools in the state and none at second level. In comparison, of the 3,200 Irish primary schools over 90 per cent are under Catholic patronage. “The concern is not that the schools are Catholic”, Selim emphasises. He further explains: “I send my children to Catholic schools. The concern is the admission policy that gives preference to Catholic children, this does not only affect the Muslim community but in fact it affects all people in Ireland who are not Catholic.”
The value of education is something Selim recognises. He teaches Arabic as an adjunct professor in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies in College and provides a range of translation services in the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland in Clonskeagh, with proficiency in Arabic, French and Kurdish. The issue of school patronage is one that has been aired repeatedly in Irish media. There is scarcely a student in Ireland who did not attend a school with a religious affiliation, something that Selim accepts. He says: “Nobody can deny the fundamental role performed by the Catholic Church in setting up and running schools for a long period, however today we are talking about varying religious communities residing in Ireland.” With weekly mass attendance lower than it has ever been, despite a high level of baptism rates, many Irish people fall into a category now known as “culturally Catholic”, a status often born out of necessity to ensure places at local Catholic schools. But for the Muslim community and those of other faiths, adhering to cultural Catholicism is not an option.
For the Muslim community and those of other faiths, adhering to cultural Catholicism is not an option.
“If we see education as a primary service that the state is providing then we have to reconsider our admissions policy”, Selim reasons. “If you as a Catholic person receive a quality education and another person is denied that right, when in fact you are one hundred percent Irish, and he is one hundred percent Irish what will happen in the future? The uneducated person will be a burden, you will be helping society progress, so he will be a burden on your shoulders.” Selim and the board yearn for change in this aspect of Irish education. “[Education] is a social need”, he points out. “It is not only for Muslims, it is for everybody residing in Ireland.” As Ireland becomes more multicultural and more diverse, there are concerns over what is in store for our small nation if education remains segregated in such a way, even if it is only in a nominal sense in many cases. Selim’s attitude and comments seem to suggest that faith, in perhaps more than one sense of the word, is required to open education to all Irish citizens.
The board’s main impetus for attempting to effect change in primary school’s admissions is a question of equality, and that is what this board is seeking to achieve. Much in the same way that we as students so often lament politicians’ neglect of the student vote and their apparent disregard for the funding of higher education, minority and marginalised groups in Irish society are finding themselves on the periphery of the mainstream political discussion.
The South Dublin Muslim Board has a clear aim: “We just want to get people active.” Leinster House has not seen a Muslim TD since the Labour Party’s outgoing Mosajee Bhamjee decided against trying to regain his seat in Co Clare in 1997, and the imminent 32nd Dáil will not break this trend. However, the board remains hopeful that Muslim interests will begin to gain traction in Irish politics and that greater consideration will be given to their concerns. Selim is a figure widely recognisable from Irish media and is often a prominent figure for Islamic issues in Ireland.
With its focused vision, and a member of the College’s community at the helm, the South Dublin Muslim Board could soon become a significant part of Ireland’s more diverse future.
The board is in its earliest phase of foundation, but it maintains the possibility of becoming an important factor in future societal and political campaigns in the future. “Definitely this board is going to increase and develop and get bigger. Everybody belonging to [this] certain circle of the community are to express their views and these are to be digested and presented”, Selim says when asked about the future of the board. “This board will develop. This board will be called the Irish Muslim Board, it is in South Dublin but it is in the future going to be Dublin and after that be all over Ireland.”
For now, the board is focusing its attention on the participation of Muslims in society and politics and on a greater ease of access to education. The board has a determined leadership, planning to create a national forum for Muslim views on Irish society to be expressed “within the parameters set by Irish law”. With its focused vision, and a member of the College’s community at the helm, the South Dublin Muslim Board could soon become a significant part of Ireland’s more diverse future.