Stop attacking Muslims and their mosques

Photo: Imam Ibrahim Noonan and Michael Nugent in Galway

In the past two years, violent thugs have twice attacked the Maryam mosque of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Galway, Ireland. During the first attack, they smashed windows while the community was at prayer. During the second attack, they vandalised furniture and books, and threw an Irish tricolour and family photographs out of the window. Local Muslim families are now frightened about their future safety.

In this article I address the following issues:

  1. These anti-Muslim attacks are immoral and senseless
  2. Most Muslims are peaceful, like most people generally
  3. The threat of a personal attack against Imam Noonan
  4. Defamatory smears made against Imam Noonan
  5. Challenging anti-Muslim prejudice and hostility
  6. UN statement on violence based on religion or belief

1. These anti-Muslim attacks are immoral and senseless

These anti-Muslim attacks are immoral because they are attacks on innocent people, and on the principles of freedom of religion and belief, and freedom of expression. And they are senseless because the Ahmadiyya Muslim community are at the forefront of promoting peace and tolerance, and are themselves persecuted by Islamist regimes around the world. Atheist Ireland campaigns alongside the Ahmadi Muslims for separation of church and State in Ireland and internationally.

Shortly before the second attack, a man phoned Imam Ibrahim Noonan, the chief Imam for Ireland of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The caller said that he was affiliated with a group that was planning to attack both the mosque and Ibrahim himself. The caller said that he didn’t agree with immigration, or having Muslims and mosques in Ireland, but because he knew about Ibrahim’s work fighting against extremists, he wanted to warn him.

Ibrahim is a courageous, peaceful democrat. He has called for extremist Islamist preachers to be deported from Ireland. When the United Nations was questioning Pakistan about its human rights record two years ago, he was part of a joint delegation to Geneva, led by Jane Donnelly, representing Atheist Ireland, the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland. Together we called for an end to the persecution in Pakistan of atheists, Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, and other religious minorities.

It is outrageous that Imam Ibrahim Noonan, and his peaceful democratic Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Galway, are the target of such violent attacks. And it is equally outrageous when such attacks are targeted at any Muslim in Ireland, or any Muslim community in Ireland, whether they believe in Ahmadi, Sunni, Shia, or any other variation of Islam. We each have a right to live our lives peacefully without fear of such violence.

2. Most Muslims are peaceful, like most people generally

Some thugs try to justify attacking Muslims by pointing to violence by Islamist regimes and terrorists. But like most people generally, most Muslims are peaceful. We should give Muslims the respect of treating them as individual people, not a monolithic block that can be caricatured by the behaviour of a minority.

By analogy, most Irish people are at least nominally Christian, but we do not blame all Christians for the worst behaviour of some Christians. Nor do we blame Protestants for the worst behaviour of some Catholics. We know that some Christians are pious, while others are only culturally Christian. Up to one on ten Irish Catholics don’t even believe in God.

Similarly, most Muslims are ordinary Sunnis or Shias whose priority is to live normal lives, bring up their children, and contribute to the wellbeing of their community. Most Muslims piously follow their religion, while some in the West drink alcohol and don’t wear veils but consider themselves culturally Muslim. Some Muslims are persecuted Ahmadi or female or gay or reformist Muslims.

A tiny number of identifiable Muslims lead Islamist regimes that impose Sharia by force on other Muslims and religious minorities, including the Wahhabi Sunni regime in Saudi Arabia, and the Shia regime in Iran. A small minority are members of terrorist groups, from the Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon with its aim of obliterating Israel, to the Sunni ISIS who promoted their supposed Caliphate by murdering concertgoers in Paris.

But we should not blame all Muslims for the injustices perpetrated by Islamist regimes or Islamist terrorist groups or individual religious fanatics. Indeed, we should recognise that most of the victims of Islamist injustices are themselves Muslims. We should oppose all prejudice, discrimination, hostility and violence against Muslims, and we should treat Muslims with the same respect, as people, as we would like to be accorded to us.

3. The threat of a personal attack against Imam Noonan

The caller who warned Imam Noonan about the attack on his mosque also said that his group was planning to attack Ibrahim personally.

These threats should not be underestimated. Most Irish people are peaceful democrats. But a minority are prepared to use violence to promote their authoritarianism. In recent times, thugs have attacked places that were due to house immigrants, and thugs describing themselves as anti-fascists have assaulted people on our streets.

It seems unlikely that Ireland will see the type of murderous attacks on Muslims that have recently happened in other countries. But we live in an increasingly interconnected world, and we should condemn violent attacks on Muslims wherever they happen.

Last month in Norway, a man in his twenties shot at a mosque, wounding one person. In May in Sri Lanka, Buddhist mobs murdered a Muslim man during a spate of attacks on Muslim-owned homes and shops. In April in California, a teenager murdered a woman at a synagogue, and claimed to have also set a nearby mosque on fire. In March in New Zealand, a 28-year-old man murdered 51 Muslims attending Friday prayers in two Mosques.

4. Defamatory smears made against Imam Noonan

Just weeks after the Galway mosque was vandalised, a tweet from Gemma O’Doherty instigated a series of online smears against Ibrahim. They were misinterpreting an academic debate about the sexual norms of the seventh century, to falsely allege that Ibrahim supports child marriage and worse, and to suggest that he is a foreigner who should go to live in an Islamist State.

I reject the morality of the Bible and the Quran, which are documents written in more violent and undemocratic eras, when women and children had few rights. But it is defamatory to use academic discussions about those eras to repeatedly claim that a public figure in Ireland today supports child marriage and worse, particularly when he has explicitly challenged child marriage at the United Nations when the UN was questioning Pakistan.

The attacks on Ibrahim for being a foreigner in Ireland are particularly ironic. I support the rights of Muslims to move to Ireland in order to live democratically under Irish laws. But Ibrahim was born in Ireland and converted to Ahmadiyya Islam as an adult. Like many online mobs, those attacking Ibrahim seem not to be troubled by a desire to research what they are writing about.

5. Challenging anti-Muslim prejudice and hostility

What we are facing here is prejudice and hostility based on perceptions of identity. Prejudice is the internal motivation. It can range from prejudice to hatred, expressed as immature bullying, tribal paranoia, or revenge for some real or imagined injustice. Hostility is the outward behaviour. It can range from hostility and discrimination, through harassment, intimidation and violence, to oppression and persecution by States or terrorists.

What they all have in common is that the victims are targeted because of perceptions about part of their identity, rather than because of anything that they have done personally. Typically, the perceived identity will be one of those that the laws of western democracies protect from discrimination, such as sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, race, membership of the Traveller community, civil status or family status.

This prejudice leads to disharmony, discrimination, segregation, inequality and alienation among diverse individuals who could otherwise live together more happily. At its worst, the hostility is similar to terrorism, which both hurts innocent people, and also sends a threatening message to other people who share that identity. It leaves the victims, and others in their community, afraid to go about their day-to-day business without fearing that another attack might come any time now.

There is another distinction between challenging prejudice and hostility. We can only change prejudice, bias and hatred by education, community leadership and social pressure. We cannot change how people think and feel by making it illegal. But we can challenge hostility, discrimination and violence by making it illegal. And we can make prejudice an aggravating factor when it is a motive for an existing crime.

6. UN statement on violence based on religion or belief

Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, led a group of independent UN experts who recently issued a statement to mark the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.

The experts urged States to step up their efforts to combat intolerance, discrimination and violence against people based on religion or belief, including against members of religious minorities and people who are not religious. They also made clear that the right to freedom of religion or belief protects people with or without religious beliefs, rather than protecting the religions or beliefs themselves. They said:

“We stress that religion or belief should never be used to justify discrimination. When faced with religious persecution or discrimination, victims are often also deprived of their right to participate fully in political, economic and cultural life, as well as their rights to education and to health. This can include the desecration and destruction of numerous cultural heritage sites of rich historic and religious value, such as places of worship and cemeteries.”

As populism has become a trend in the political and social arena, it has fostered many forms of hatred against those who are viewed as foreign or simply different. Often, States and religious institutions resort to the instrumentalisation of religions or beliefs in order to retain their influence or control and achieve other political agendas. Fundamentalism is on the rise across the world’s major religious traditions, posing a threat to many human rights.

Moreover, critical views of religions or beliefs are sometimes mischaracterised as ‘hate speech’ or labelled an offence to the religious feelings of others both by governments and non-state groups. Too often this is used as a pretext to silence those with critical voices and punish others for not believing.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief is misunderstood as protecting religions and beliefs instead of the people with the beliefs and those without. It is incumbent on States to ensure that religions or beliefs are not used to violate human rights, and to combat religious extremism – which are a threat to many human rights, while adhering to international norms.”

You can read the statement from the UN experts here.

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