I’m op­ti­mistic Mus­lims will play an ever more im­por­tant role in so­ci­ety



DR Rizwan Khan is proud to call him­self an Ir­ish Mus­lim. As Chair­man of the Kerry Is­lamic Out­reach Cen­tre in Tralee, Rizwan is an en­thu­si­as­tic pro­moter of in­te­gra­tion be­tween Tralee Mus­lims and the town they now call home.

In the past decade or so the rise in sec­u­lar­ism and West­ern moder­nity has meant ev­ery re­li­gion now seeks to pro­mote its mes­sage in a rapidly chang­ing world. This is some­thing Mus­lims in Tralee have done by be­ing vis­i­bly proac­tive in the com­mu­nity. It’s achieved by pro­mot­ing open­ness through com­mu­nity ac­tivism and by pro­vid­ing knowl­edge on the many pos­i­tives of Is­lam.

I sit for tea with Rizwan at the Kerry Is­lamic Out­reach Cen­tre on Main Street. Our chat takes place in a spa­cious room with a row of beau­ti­fully em­broi­dered prayer mats in a line on the floor. Re­li­gious scrolls, writ­ten in Ara­bic, hang from the wall, while a book­shelf oc­cu­pies a cor­ner of the room where a large and dec­o­ra­tive copy of the Qu­ran rests. It’s a warm and con­vivial set­ting that is ideal for peo­ple look­ing to un­der­stand a lit­tle more about Mus­lims, their faith and their cul­ture.

Rizwan lives in Tralee with his fam­ily and is a Con­sul­tant Pae­di­a­tri­cian at Uni­ver­sity Ma­ter­nity Hos­pi­tal in Lim­er­ick. He also runs a pri­vate clinic in Sco­tia House, Tralee. But even though life is busy for Rizwan, he is stead­fast in his de­sire to share the pos­i­tive mes­sage of Is­lam and work closely for the greater good of his com­mu­nity.

“We have got such pos­i­tive feed­back from the peo­ple in Tralee in the last cou­ple of years; it’s been won­der­ful. We en­joy this in­ter­ac­tion with the com­mu­nity through ini­tia­tives like the Tidy Towns and by also help­ing lo­cal char­i­ties. This is im­por­tant for us,” he said.

Rizwan be­lieves that it’s peo­ple’s per­cep­tions of Is­lam that pose the big­gest chal­lenge for Mus­lims liv­ing here. An ex­am­ple of this hap­pened in 2015 when plan­ning per­mis­sion for a new mosque in Kil­lerisk was sought. Lo­cals voiced con­cern over what they thought would be the in­stal­la­tion of a minaret for the tra­di­tional call to prayer. But con­spir­acy the­o­ries and stereo­typ­ing can often gather pace when peo­ple find it dif­fi­cult to cope with the emo­tions that sur­round change.

“I was work­ing on the me­dia side of things at the time when peo­ple said ‘there was go­ing to be two Mosques and a minaret’. This sim­ply wasn’t true. The coun­cil knew this as the plans and stip­u­la­tions were there for ev­ery­one to see. All dur­ing that pe­riod our key mes­sage was to keep ex­plain­ing what and who we are by hav­ing a weekly in­for­ma­tion stall in town, host­ing pub­lic ex­hi­bi­tions, and keep­ing up our in­volve­ment in lo­cal char­i­ties and Tidy Towns. This has proven to be very fruit­ful.”

One can say with cer­tainty that Eng­land is a clas­sic tem­plate for Ire­land on how to avoid the pit­falls of seg­re­ga­tion be­tween eth­nic and re­li­gious groups. The UK is cur­rently wrestling with in­te­gra­tion strate­gies and look­ing at ways of re­vers­ing decades of di­vi­sion caused by poor pol­icy – the seeds of which were sown by an un­will­ing­ness, by all com­mu­ni­ties, to un­der­stand each other.

Rizwan agrees that the UK re­mains a valu­able case study for Ire­land on how to avoid sim­i­lar prob­lems from hap­pen­ing here. Rizwan said one of the big­gest chal­lenges for the Mus­lim com­mu­nity in Tralee and Kerry is com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“This is a chal­lenge within the Mus­lim com­mu­nity, as well as out­side it. There are huge in­flu­ences com­ing from out­side the com­mu­nity from main­stream me­dia which can feed cer­tain things that can be be­lieved. What we try to do is host var­i­ous events with the wider com­mu­nity. Even within the Mus­lim com­mu­nity it­self there are some in­di­vid­u­als, who are not well in­formed and who are not very con­fi­dent to go on this route. There is a com­fort zone for some Mus­lims in that they are com­fort­able in their own life among their fam­ily and friends. Is­lam com­mands that one of the big­gest obli­ga­tions of a Mus­lim is to make sure the so­ci­ety you live in, re­gard­less of what faith you are, there is no suf­fer­ing. Is­lam be­lieves that on the day of judge­ment the ques­tion asked to each in­di­vid­ual is not about you and your fam­ily alone, but about your neigh­bours. This con­cept is all about look­ing af­ter the com­mu­nity. Nowhere does it say this has to be about what faith you are. It doesn’t mat­ter.”

Prej­u­dice and ig­no­rance are not al­ways easy to dis­lodge from a mind­set once en­trenched. To un­tie this knot both sides must be will­ing to un­der­stand each other. Only then will bar­ri­ers dis­solve and ig­no­rance give way to op­ti­mism. Rizwan talks about the im­por­tance of lan­guage and com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the in­te­gra­tion process. For ex­am­ple, some within the Mus­lim com­mu­nity that ar­rived in the UK dur­ing the 1950s never learned English. This led to gen­er­a­tional dif­fi­cul­ties when try­ing to achieve a seam­less in­te­gra­tion pol­icy.

“Not learn­ing the lan­guage is often the big­gest and first step to­wards not in­te­grat­ing at all,” Rizwan said.

“An ex­am­ple would be places like Bel­gium to­day where there are ghet­tos of North African Mus­lims that are side-lined from so­ci­ety as a di­rect pol­icy. Whereas in Ire­land, Mus­lims came here as very skilled and ed­u­cated work­ers from day one. If you have such prom­i­nent peo­ple like this in the com­mu­nity, then oth­ers will tag along. It’s a proud thing to say about Tralee and Kil­lar­ney to­day that the ma­jor­ity of Mus­lim school-go­ing chil­dren are go­ing to Catholic schools. We are thank­ful to them. Par­ents are par­ents, and re­gard­less of faith they will al­ways look for the best ed­u­ca­tion for their chil­dren.”

But break­ing down bar­ri­ers be­tween Is­lam and Chris­tian­ity has never been more dif­fi­cult for 21st cen­tury Mus­lims in light of re­cent ex­trem­ism and ter­ror at­tacks. This has cre­ated deep di­vi­sion and has height­ened mis­con­cep­tions sur­round­ing Is­lam. Fol­low­ing the Manch­ester bomb­ing of May 2017, Rizwan came out strongly con­demn­ing the at­tacks and sought to dis­tance the true and com­pas­sion­ate teach­ings of Is­lam from ter­ror­ism.

“It was re­ally af­ter the Paris at­tacks of 2016, and Manch­ester in 2017, that we felt peo­ple were start­ing to be­lieve that all Mus­lims were the same. This was a small mi­nor­ity that didn’t ex­ist be­fore then. Thank­fully, the wider ma­jor­ity is still very sym­pa­thetic and friendly to us. Peo­ple are also in­flu­enced by events that hap­pen closer to home. These ter­ror­ists can just as eas­ily kill peace­ful Mus­lims in these at­tacks. If a Mus­lim does wrong he should be prose­cuted like any­body else, and if he is do­ing some­thing good he should be praised like ev­ery­one else.”

I ask Rizwan how he feels about the re­cent ref­er­en­dum where cit­i­zens voted over­whelm­ingly to abol­ish Ire­land’s blas­phemy law from the Con­sti­tu­tion; a law that deemed any pub­li­ca­tion or ut­ter­ance of blas­phe­mous mat­ter against a re­li­gion a crim­i­nal of­fence. Mus­lims be­lieve that the con­cept of ‘Peace be Upon him’ should not be mocked. And while Rizwan ac­cepts a per­son’s right to abol­ish the law by vote, he be­lieves it doesn’t have to be at the ex­pense of ba­sic com­pas­sion and un­der­stand­ing.

“Peo­ple are in­sult­ing the faith for the last decade any­way, so what’s new for the Mus­lims and the Prophet Muhammed from that point of view? Not so much in Ire­land, but cer­tainly in coun­tries all over the world. I do know that a ma­jor­ity of Mus­lims here are con­cerned about the abo­li­tion of the blas­phemy law. The point at the end of the day is free­dom of speech. I’m com­pletely sup­port­ive of this. But we should not in­cite ha­tred or hurt to any­body.”

Rizwan con­tin­ued: “For ex­am­ple, we all love our mother and fa­ther. Speak­ing as some­one whose mother has passed away, if some­one said some­thing bad you are nat­u­rally go­ing to be hurt. A per­son who is gen­uinely nice would be sen­si­tive in such sit­u­a­tions. If some­thing is pub­lished that is un­true, you are go­ing to hurt a bil­lion peo­ple on this earth. Like it or not, we love him [Al­lah] more than our mother and fa­ther. It’s a re­al­ity, and there is no ques­tion about it.

“We would love to tell ev­ery­one about his life. If some­one wants to crit­i­cise him then it should be a bi­lat­eral dis­cus­sion. I have no is­sue with that. But a per­son who is happy about chang­ing the blas­phemy law should also have a re­spon­si­bil­ity, and the in­tel­lect, in their mind to be hu­mane.”

Fi­nally, does Rizwan be­lieve there is a vi­brant fu­ture for Tralee’s Mus­lim com­mu­nity?

“Ed­u­ca­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion mat­ter and I’m very op­ti­mistic that the next gen­er­a­tion of Mus­lims, who are born here, are go­ing to play a more fruit­ful and pos­i­tive role for the Ir­ish com­mu­nity as a whole. I’m op­ti­mistic that the next gen­er­a­tion of the Mus­lim com­mu­nity will be much bet­ter in­te­grated be­cause they are all very proud of be­long­ing to this land, and the sense of own­er­ship that comes that.”

Dr Rizwan Khan in the Is­lamic Out­reach Cen­tre on Main Street, Tralee

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