From Karbalā to Milltown via the South Circular Road

Michael Lanigan talks Islam and ISIS with Mudafar al-Tawash, a leader of Dublin’s Sunni community.

indepth1The Irish Sunni population flock in their droves each Friday to fill the Islamic Foundation of Ireland Mosque, on the South Circular Road, which, as its peak capacity, can accommodate about 800 persons. Like a condensed Mecca, the crowds spill out into the car park, where, on this occasion 17 young men have set up for the Dhuhr prayer at midday. On the opposite side of the building, four women stand in relative silence, supervising their children.

The prayers end and a sea of men from all classes flood the front steps. I make my way towards the information centre and can see over the hedgerows an assortment of keffiyeh headdresses, luminous American Apparel baseball hats and taqikay skullcaps. Some nod, some smile, but most are engrossed in their heated discussions. At the gate, a stout male in a high-vis jacket catches my eye and gestures towards the centre on his right hand side.

Knocking on the door, a man in his early 30s answers and I immediately brief him on my presence. I inform him that I had recently been over in Milltown’s Ahlul Bayt Islamic Centre in order to interview the Shia Imam, Dr. Ali al-Saleh.

My interest in the Imam came after he appeared on Newstalk, urging all local Muslims to come forward and notify Gardaí as to the growing presence of radical Islamists in Ireland, which they were purportedly using as a safe haven. Having said that this threat was non-existent amongst his fellow Shia brothers, al-Saleh essentially implied that it had been an issue within the Sunni community, whose extremist elements are the devout followers of Wahhabi-Salafism, the terrorist ideology of ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Now at the Islamic Foundation of Ireland Mosque, I ask whether I could speak with anybody on premise concerning this matter. The man before me nods silently before guiding me past the Imam’s office and down two small flights of stairs. We pass a second office, out of which I overhear a voice bellowing: “You are Muslim, therefore you act. A man who neither prays, nor acts is not Muslim. You must act.”

We continue until reaching a third office, where he takes a seat next to the Mosque’s administrator, Mudafar al-Tawash. Born in Iraq and a former UCD student, al-Tawash is the eyes and ears of the community throughout the week, until Friday, when the Imam makes his address. He responds to my briefing, coming straight out to say that he had yet to hear al-Saleh’s warnings. Nor was he aware that any extreme elements of the Sunni faith were present in this community, insisting, “We don’t have any of those problems here with our people.”

There is a pause. We both nod. To stop myself from saying “excellent, that’s that I suppose”, I ask about his work in the Sunni community. “We deal with local issues – marriage, divorce and community matters – but, regarding the issue of going to the war to fight with ISIS, anybody can ask us these questions. But we will ask why? Is this a just war? We are against anybody killing anybody; killing minorities, killing them as people to establish the Islamic State. But what is this Islamic State?”

While not a visible concern, he does point out that social media and generational gaps, by creating communication barriers, can aid in pushing young men over to the extremist side of Islamism. If al-Saleh’s claims are true, then for al-Tawash, it is in such areas, where people find excitement in hearing about the swift action of Wahhabism, cut-off from their community and the nature of Islam: “They just look, see, and decide this is what they want to do.”

“But even now, with the media, we don’t know what is exactly happening in Iraq, it is mixed up. It’s hard to get the real story, when you hear different stories from different people in Syria and Iraq.” This influence, he tells me, “is difficult to control. You cannot tell somebody what to do, because it’s hard to tell what is exactly on a young person’s mind. It is very rare with the younger generations to discuss their feeling towards ISIS, but we must discuss with them what is good for Islam.” Adding to this, he says, “of course, I can sympathise with them. They are Muslim and they have the ideology. But, do they study what they believe and know what they are doing?”

“For me, if somebody asked me to go there and fight, I’d say no. It’s not a fight for just reasons, truth, or anything. We are asking for all the things opposite to the Islamic State. You must be nice to your neighbour. We try to tell them that if anybody is interested to do something for Islam, let us help; let us build our community to help the Muslim people here, in Ireland.”

I interrupt him here on the matter of creating a stronger locality, asking how to lessen tensions with the Shia population. However, he responds to the question by assuring me that the wounds from the Battle of Karbalā on October 10th of 680AD remain as raw amongst the Shia Muslims as they were 13 centuries ago. This conflict was the definitive moment in Middle Eastern history that caused the rift between Sunni and Shia to widen ferociously. Their disagreement arose over who possessed the right to form a true Islamic Caliphate. For the Shia, the only true caliph could be the Third Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammed and it was on October 10th, that he and his battalion of seventy men fell at the hands of the four thousand strong Umayyad Caliphate fighters led by Yazid I.

Here, he emphasised his frustration, begging his fellow Muslims to ask, “Why are we fighting about something in the past? Okay, we should learn a little bit from it, but the fight between Shia and Sunni… It’s not valid.” Comparing these tensions to those of the Catholic-Protestant rivalries in Ireland, he is adamant that it has little to do with actual faith, but is a power struggle, plain and simple. “We believe in the same god, one prophet, one book”, he says shaking his head. “We just differ on this one issue, but people must get on with their lives, yet we still fight about it.”

This is why he looks upon the situation in Iraq, the perceived democracy that al-Saleh had cited it as being, with immense cynicism. Closing his eyes, he grimaces and shakes his head, utterly baffled by this statement. “When the US went in to free Iraq, nothing happened, only more killings. These people were not ready for democracy, yet somehow people thought it was okay to bring armies in to dismantle whole systems.”  The West, al-Tawash says, failed to grasp the vast cultural and societal differences of Iraqis, which in turn helped spark the match that set the region aflame once more. “It is not Europe, which had its own struggles for a long time to get to reach this point as a democracy. We still have many of the old problems inside Iraq and Syria. You cannot have democracy by just kicking Hussein out. There is a lot of tribalism and uneducated people, so because of this, Iraq especially is not ready for democracy.”

However, for all of the problems, in the end, he maintains that one can start to overcome these rifts by studying Muhammad, particularly his treatment of “minorities”. “You know, the people find it difficult to accept that this was the way of the prophet. Yes, he told us to learn from the history books, but he also taught forgiveness and mercy. You cannot keep fighting over something that happened hundreds of years ago. We must put that behind us.”

Illustration: Nadia Bertaud