I’m optimistic Muslims will play an ever more important role in society
THE KERRY ISLAMIC OUTREACH CENTRE HAS MADE HUGE STRIDES INTEGRATING WITH THE TRALEE COMMUNITY AND SPREADING A POSITIVE MESSAGE ABOUT ISLAM. STEPHEN FERNANE CHATS TO DR RIZWAN KHAN ABOUT THIS JOURNEY, AND LIFE FOR TRALEE’S MUSLIM COMMUNITY.
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