No Identity Please: On Integration of Muslims into Ireland

Sardar Aziz*


In line with the remarkable changes that Ireland and Irish society went through in last few decades, the social fabric of the country now, more than at any other time, is multinational, multiethnic and multicultural. Among these new arrivals are Muslims. Because of the current global political condition, their integration makes more headlines. This article seeks to present a different viewpoint with regard to the question of the integration of Muslims in Ireland.

The arrival of Muslims into Ireland is, in comparison to the rest of continental Europe, relatively recent. However, there have been Muslims in this country for the last five or six decades, but the number has never been high enough to make up a community. Today, there is a considerable number of Muslims residing and living here. Integrating them into the Irish society is a burning issue. This is challenging, especially since such a process failed or did not achieve the desired goal in the rest of Europe.

In brief, the process of integration in Europe is managed through three different policies (Gallis et al, 2005): Britain most fully embraced the notion of “multiculturalism” — integration while maintaining identity — but some believe that the UK has put too much emphasis on promoting diversity at the expense of building a common society. France has long adhered to a policy that encourages assimilation, but many French Muslims live in impoverished, almost exclusively Muslim, neighbourhoods. Until recently, Germany and Spain made few efforts to integrate their Muslim minorities and, in some cases, parallel societies developed.

Despite their differences, none of the policies has been completely successful. The three policies give three different attitudes toward the ‘Other’. The multicultural policy maintains the identity of the Other, the assimilation policy attempts to eradicate the identity of the Other, whereas the policy of negligence makes the Other invisible. The Irish policy so far is closer to the German and Spanish policies rather than it is to the British or the French. Accordingly, is there a possibility for the emergence of a parallel Muslim society? While invoking this question, this article endeavours to offer a different point of view.

Every country, and consequently every culture, responds to the presence of the Other in a different manner. Based on this premise, Ireland should have its own distinctive policy. In comparison with other countries in continental Europe, Ireland has a different history in relation to the Other. The differences are as follows: Firstly, Ireland is new to immigration, secondly, it has no historical link in the context of colonialism to the Islamic world. Thus, Ireland has no history, guilt (colonialism), duty or attachments toward the Islamic world or Islamic states. This makes the relationship between Ireland and the Islamic world a relationship based on mutual diplomatic and economic interests.

This fact makes Ireland, for the Muslims who are residing here, a neutral state. The significance of this neutrality cannot be disputed. The neutrality denotes that there is nothing like pre-established images, stereotypes and legacies in the newcomer’s memory towards the country, neither in his individual nor in his collective memory. This absence of memory can or could be a helpful tool to commence a new life: a new beginning empty of wrath and despair. This historic blank page is immensely significant. In the colonial and post-colonial relationships, the role of past events and their impact in shaping the present relations is overriding. This is proved not only in post-colonial literature, but also in daily life. In the literature, we may take as an example the slim novel of the Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih ( موسم الهجره نحو الشمال) Season of the Migration to the North. In this novel the protagonist, Mustafa Sa’eed, “in a form of revenge for the colonial ‘taking’ of his country, devotes himself to seducing English women by posing as the fulfilment of their Orientalist fantasies” (Jamal Mahjoub, 2009). The past events, the sense of revenge, hampers the protagonist in establishing a normal healthy relationship with the ‘Other’, as Franz Fanon (1986) called it. This emphasizes that the Muslims who chose to be in Ireland made their choice away from any past, conscious or unconscious, influences.

If, for the Muslims, the decision to be in Ireland is a decision based on choice, it is a complete contrast to the decision and the condition of ‘leaving home’. For most Muslims, leaving the country of origin is, in most situations, effectively fleeing. The fleeing condition, leaving out of fear of persecution, means that the ‘leaving’ becomes a ‘departure’. A departure signifies a break, a rupture with the home and its culture. Only then does one become an open being. Openness is the condition that enables one to develop, thus being able to change, to embrace, to be flexible, and eventually (in a Marxian connotation) to become modern. For the Muslims a move from home to Ireland is a move from tradition to modernity. If modern is a condition:

[…] where all fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind (Marx & Engels, 1888).

Then the movement of a Muslim, from his home to Ireland, is a movement from a fixed to a liquid relationship. The reality, whereby ‘all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’, is in stark contrast with any reality dominated by religion. In societies, which are dominated by the sacred, the notions of progress, modernity and scientific advances carry different meanings (Allawi, 2009:18).

If not managed, this encounter results in a shock, in a clash, and eventually, in a withdrawal. The main issue at hand is the medium. Does there exist a medium where religion and secularism, tradition and modernity can use language rationally and communicate with each other? The mass media proved to be a medium which cannot fulfil this essential criterion. In the absence of such a medium, every minor incident has the potential to be a source of major conflict. The incidence of the Muslim girls, whether they should be allowed or not be allowed to wear a headscarf in public schools, is a case. As reported by the Irish Independent newspaper (June, 2, 2008).

In response to the event Labour's Ruairi Quinn said "If people want to come into a western society that is Christian and secular, they need to conform to the rules and regulations of that country”, his stance on the issue was backed by his Fine Gael counterpart Brian Hayes, who says it makes "absolute sense" that there is one uniform for everyone.

Mr Quinn said immigrants should live by Irish laws and conform to Irish norms. "Nobody is formally asking them to come here. In the interests of integration and assimilation, they should embrace our culture," he said. He added: "Irish girls don't wear headscarves. A manifestation of religious beliefs in such a way is unacceptable and draws attention to those involved. I believe in a public school situation they should not wear a headscarf." Mr Hayes said Ireland should not be going down the route of multiculturalism.

[On the other hand], a spokesperson for Integration Minister Conor Lenihan said he had no problem with students wearing the hijab. "For those that wear the hijab, it's an issue of modesty. It's not so long since Irish women wore headscarves to church, so we have to respect that”.

As becomes clear from the statements, the opposition parties were calling for assimilation. In other words, the Muslims have to obliterate their entire culture, history and memory and adopt the ‘Christian secular norms’. While the Government takes a rather interesting standpoint, stating that “It's not so long since Irish women wore headscarves to church, so we have to respect that”, indicating that Muslims are similar to us [Irish], with a slight contrast. They [Muslims] are similar to our [religious] past. This makes the viewpoints of both the opposition and the Government rather alike. While the opposition is for confronting differences and eventually going along the French way, in other words to assimilate, the Government is attempting to overcome the differences, by highlighting the similarities and emphasising the likeness between both cultures, in other words dismissing the differences. In effect both stances, despite their superficial differences and their different wording, are stressing the refusal to recognise differences of the Other. It is hard to imagine such a move in a country like Ireland. It is possible in France because France claims that it has departed from religion and established a post-religious, secular form of identity. This is not the case in Ireland.

Dismissing differences and calling for assimilation are proven to be the wrong policies. Ireland is a post-colonial state. It is also a society of emigration. Both qualities make the state rather a hybrid. Hybridisation according to Bahbah (1994:2) is a culture that has the capacity to ‘add to’ rather than ‘add up’ other cultures. If Ireland has a post-colonial culture, then there is no justification in taking a colonial viewpoint. If Muslims are different and their differences make them foreign, then historically: [T]he foreigner [in Greek polis] was placed inside the law, under the law, essential to the law. The foreigner occupied an integral space within the city. Indeed, the foreigner was essential because he provided that to which citizens could compare themselves. From a phenomenological standpoint, one could claim that one’s identity is only understood in relation to others (Westmoreland, 2008:2).

What is hampering communication between the host and foreigner? In answering this question, many different issues need to be taken into consideration. Who is the foreigner [Muslim]? Is the identity of the foreigner established by him/herself or imposed by the host? In the case of the Muslims it is rather the latter. The Muslims in Ireland are from diverse backgrounds, cultures, nationalities, and speak a big variety of languages. Even their religion is not a uniform. Islam is a diverse religion. Like Christianity it is divided into two main groups namely Shiaشیعه and Suiney سنی. Moreover, the reason for the Muslim’s exile is diverse. Some are here for political reasons, others for economic reasons. Another main barrier lies in the nature of leaving the country. When one is forced to leave, consequently one is less inclined to open up. When one leaves to survive, one does not begin a new life. An escape from persecution and from economically difficult circumstances makes one haunted by the figure of home throughout the entire time abroad. This is one of the main reasons the Muslims are less inclined to assimilate. While the very act of migration should make the immigrant, the one who is looking for an alternative, an open being, the very contrary is occurring. When one is merely leaving a regime, a system or a condition, it does not necessarily translate into a rupture with culture, language, society and tradition.

Accordingly, the immediate moment of the arrival is the ‘return’. While the leaving occurs physically, the return happens virtually. Nowadays, more than at any other time in history, the fulfilment of this rather schizophrenic situation becomes possible through technology. Media and communication technology, telephone and internet changed the nature of exile dramatically.

The question is how to integrate someone, whose memory, dreams, desires, and virtual being are rather somewhere else. Weber (1978:54) famously defined the state: “as a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”. The concept of territory, in the time of Weber, had a rather obvious meaning. While today it is quite different. If the state is a “container” (Taylor, 1994:151), and thus assumes, through the monopoly of violence, to be able to control the affairs of the inhabitant within that container, it rather believes in a myth. In the age of globalisation, there are many of those who, despite residing within the territory, belong to somewhere else, somewhere beyond.

If the attachment to territory is at best a “mythical-magical attachments” (Sack, 1980:193) it is rather likely that the detachment from it might not necessarily result in a break from it. This has impacts on two fronts, namely the Irish and the immigrants. From the Irish perspective, this attitude towards territory consequently means that one [the outsider], who is presumed to have no attachment to the territory, is seen as disloyal. This disloyalty is a challenge for the state, especially the nation state. While from the immigrants’ [Muslims] perspective, a detachment from the territory of birth is not entirely possible. A move from a territory to another territory is a scar which refuses to heal. This subsequently obstructs the integration.

If citizenship formulates the relationships between the inhabitant of the container and the state, then this formula is challenged when it comes to the Other, the foreigner. Citizenship is not a natural right granted automatically to every human being. The contemporary work of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1998) shows clearly how the concept is political and is thus politically structured. It is the state that grants citizenship, primarily on the basis of birth. For those who are born out of the wedlock of the nation have to go through the process of naturalisation or purification; they have to live for a long time in purgatory, in order to be entitled to become a citizen. Since citizenship is territory or blood-based the vast majority of the Muslims in the state are excluded. This is a big impediment to integration. While the legal system is discriminative, the major impossibility comes from the social front, as Agamben (2000: 15) articulates:

In 1943, in a small Jewish periodical, The Menorah Journal, Hannah Arendt published an article titled "We Refugees." After sketching a polemical portrait of Mr. Cohn, in this brief but important essay the assimilated Jew who had been 150 percent German, 150 percent Viennese, and 150 percent French finally realizes bitterly that "on ne parvient pas deux fois” (one does not achieve this twice).

Through showing the impossibility of becoming it is painfully all up to the state to decide on one’s fate.

Having said that, to integrate the Muslims is rather a Herculean task. The Muslim identity is not a clear or fixed identity. The Islamic belief is suffering from a long and cruel mastery of the dogma. This results in the decline of the Islamic political power. Thinkers like Ibn-Taymiyya and al-Ghazzali, who rejected the power of reason, witnessed the collapse and corruption of the Islamic power. The current affairs of the Islamic world are worsening. Whereas another Islamic thinker, like ibn-Rushed or Averrois in Latin, was advocating that “the truth of intellect is superior to revelation” (Walker, 2005:76). But the harshness of the reality muted such a voice.

Coming from a background that denounces reason, Muslims are finding it difficult to engage in a rational encounter with the Other. The segregation, the withdrawal, issuing radical fatwa are all signs of this anxious situation. In the decline of reasoning the communication with the Other becomes impossible.

The complexity of the host, legal as well as social, and the difficulty of the guest make the act of hospitality unfeasible. Europe had enormous difficulty in dealing with Jews. Based on this sad experience, it is rather healthy to avoid the politics of identity. As Voltaire (1994:30) puts it during his visit to England, “The Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of Infidel to none but the bankrupt.” When the identity is sidelined, and people are accepted according to their skills, wills, and abilities, it might result in a Darwinian condition but it is more tolerable than a total rejection. The emphasis on the quality of the person does not indicate that he or she should be reduced to a mere guest worker. It is rather suggesting that one should not be categorised based on his or her belief. By not laying stress on religion, one manages to avoid essentialism, reductionism. At the end Islam is just a part of the whole. Whereas stressing on Islam to a degree of exaggeration is, as Amartya Sen (2006: xii, xiii) puts it, a “solitarist approach to human identity. […] Ignoring the great many different ways in which people relate to each other.” .


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