Galway’s Muslim community responded to a wanton act of vandalism on its Maryam Mosque in the best way possible – by throwing open its doors to Galwegians of all faiths and none. Reporter Paul Hyland joined them to see more.
The first thing that strikes you in the sense of openness and light; walking into the Galway Maryam Mosque, I was warmly welcomed by people – young and old, men and women, Muslims and Christians.
The Mosque held a community open day to show people their place of worship, to help them understand what it really means to be a Muslim and to undo the false assumptions about Islamic people.
The open day was organised in the wake of the act of vandalism that was carried out on the Mosque – an attack that may have been seen in some warped mind as a response to the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester.
The first thing I was struck by was jovial atmosphere at the Mosque. It was everything you would expect from a typically Irish event. There were children of all backgrounds chasing each other around the grounds; oblivious of the context in which this event was being held.
Dr Mamoon Rashid moved to Ireland in 1999. Originally from the UK, Dr Rashid explained the key principles of Islam to me; how his people worship and how Islam doesn’t allow anyone who carries out acts of violence to consider themselves a real Muslim.
“A mosque is a place of worship for the Muslim community, where we come to pray five times a day and it’s all about having a relationship with God. It’s a relationship that is based on love and following the teachings of Islam which are basically two things, one is the rights of people and the other is the rights of God,” he said.
“So if you’re praying five times a day, a Muslim man or woman should become a really good human being. And that’s why when we talk about the terrorist we say that they cannot be Muslims.
“Because if you pray as a Muslim, the rights of human beings are first. So if you are not performing those rights you cannot be a Muslim. The prayer doesn’t work. You have your own false gods or ignorance, you have false gods of pride, you have false gods of violence,” continued Dr Rashid.
As you enter the Mosque the amount of light in the prayer hall – even on a typically overcast Galway day – is the clearest metaphor for the closeness to God that Dr Rashid and his community strive for.
The hallway leading into the prayer hall was decorated with posters and books filled with information about Islam. Here visitors and their hosts chatted about religion, community, family and the importance of these types of all-inclusive events.
More than one person remarked on the sense of shame they felt when the Mosque was attacked.
One interaction, in particular, encapsulated the true community spirit of Galway as an elderly Irish man was putting back on his shoes. Three men from the Mosque came to his assistance. They got him a chair and put on his shoes for him.
The man responded simply by saying: “Thank you very much and I’m terribly sorry for what they did to your church.”
Imam Ibrahim Noonan is the Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslims in Ireland. Originally from Waterford, Imam Noonan converted to Islam while studying theology in London.
He has a unique understanding of what it means to be painted with the wrong brush. During the 1980s, while living in London, Imam Noonan came under scrutiny – as did most Irish people – due to the IRA bombings in the UK.
Now, a devout Muslim, Imam Noonan is coming under the same racially-motivated judgment because of acts of terror that are no more associated with him than the IRA ones were previously.
“At that time every Irish person [in the UK] was considered a potential terrorist. Of course, that wasn’t the case and that is the exact same case with Muslims.
“There’s about 80,000 Muslims living in Ireland, so 99.999% of them would have no desire to be anything like these people on London bridge and so, therefore, their feeling the same anxiety that the Irish would have felt at that time,” said Imam Noonan.
“The Galway people are brilliant. The last few days has proven it; since this nonsense has happened here,” continued Imam Noonan.
The pressure Muslim people feel when an act of terror is committed in the name of Allah is what Imam Noonan describes and an “inner guilt,” and the need to constantly explain themselves.
What I saw last Saturday was the farthest thing from the events on London Bridge. I saw incredibly polite men and women, who showed respect and kindness each other and their visitors.
There were hugs and handshakes abound and an honest effort from Galway residents to make help the Muslims community feel welcome.
Sisters Chanel and Evelyn – nuns from the Presentation Convent in Athenry – were two such locals there to lend their support the Galway Muslim community.
“I know the Imam’s wife very well, she comes up to the resource centre, in Doughishka, and I just wanted to show some solidarity. I was sorry for what happened,” said Sr Chanel.
Support came also in the shape of Galway West TD Noel Grealish who had this message for the Muslim community in Galway.
“We have a good vibrant Muslim community in Galway and they’re part of our community and a lot of them are business people and provide a lot of jobs,” he said.
And it’s a relationship that works both ways – with Galway’s Muslim community anxious to emphasise its openness to people of all faiths and none.
Or as Imam Noonan put it: “Islam is a religion of peace. I’m here all the time. Come and visit the Mosque. If you have questions about Islam or about why these things are happening, I’m always ready to answer the questions and understand that the Ahmadiyya Muslim community is here to serve the people of Ireland.”
As I was about to leave I was a stopped by a young man who invited me for tea with the organisers.
I thanked him and but said I was on my way out. He was having none of it and seconds later I was sitting down at a table with biscuits, cake and tea laid out in front me.
And what could be more Irish than that?