Controversial cleric Ali Selim sits down with TheCity.ie’s Ruadhan Jones at the Islamic Cultural Centre to reflect on how multicultural Ireland has become.
“In the 1990s there were 20 mosques in Ireland, maybe a few thousand Muslims. Now there are 22 mosques in Dublin alone, and 70,000 Muslims nationally.”
Sitting across from me, Dr Ali Selim – a leading figure in Ireland’s Muslim community – pauses to let that sink in. It’s a remarkable fact – proof if ever it was needed of the multicultural nation Ireland has become.
During my hour with Dr Selim, a spokesman for the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland (ICCI) in Clonskeagh, south Dublin, the renowned theologian spoke about Islam, Ireland and the growing link between the two.
“When Muslims first came to Ireland, there was a shared ignorance,” said Dr. Selim.
“The Irish knew little of Islam and we knew little of the Irish!”
“The centre was established to facilitate understanding, to introduce Islam to the Irish and get past misconceptions.”
It’s been a tumultuous couple of years in the public eye for Dr Selim, who had to apologise in early 2018 for appearing to claim on RTE’s Prime Time that female genital mutilation (FGM) was acceptable in some cases.
Within days, he clarified his remarks, reportedly telling Pat Kenny on another TV show that FGM was “a cultural practice, practiced by Muslims and non-Muslims in the past, and until today’s time. I definitely support the ban of that.”
Then last year, Dr Selim claimed at the Labour Court that he’d been fired from his teaching post at Trinity College Dublin over the controversy arising from his 2018 Prime Time appearance.
He was then awarded €7,500 by the Labour Court after it ruled he was unfairly dismissed by the top university from his role as a part-time Arabic lecturer.
Sitting down with Dr Selim in his shared office in Dublin this week, his voice – intense and at times whispering – is inflected with an infectious love for his faith and culture. Even though he speaks quietly, the background noise rarely manages to drown him out.
Apparently referring to the rhetoric that pits Islamic and European values against each other, he told TheCity.ie: “There are many ways that Islam is misunderstood.
“I would love if the Irish media were to come and talk to us, to clear it all up. We have nothing to hide. Nothing.
“People use words like Sharia law without understanding what they mean. They use them negatively.
“Islamic law is based on the idea of co-existence and freedom to practice your faith.
“The citizen in a secular state has the same rights to freedom and respect.
“We share this country with the Irish – we are part of it.”
Clearly, he sincerely considers Muslims to have equal rights and responsibilities as part of this nation. He also feels strongly that Islam is wrongly misrepresented as a religion of war.
He explains that Islam has five “pillars of faith”, the third being Zakat – as in, almsgiving or charity.
“The promise of Islam is the promise of peace granted by Allah.
“We must be generous to the poor and needy.
“It’s why we fast in Ramadan, which is the fourth pillar.
“For 40 days, we do not eat from sunrise to sunset, even if we feel very hungry or thirsty.
“It’s so that we can share in the suffering of the poor and the sick – and so that we can understand what is important, and share with others what is good.”
Since coming to Ireland in 1999, Dr Selim has completed an MPhil and a PhD and was a lecturer in Arabic and Islam at Trinity College Dublin.
He’s also served as an Islamic adviser for international companies and delivered courses on Islamic awareness to state bodies.
He has published a number of books and contributed to a number of others.
His expertise in both Islam and European cultures make him the ideal spokesperson for the ICCI.
The centre, he tells me, has changed greatly in the twenty years he has been there, reflecting the needs of the Muslim and Irish population.
“When the centre opened, much of the work we did was focused on introducing the cultures to each other. Now, we have a generation – two even – that have grown up in Ireland.
“They know very little of the land their parents came from, and the centre’s role has focused on helping them nourish their Islamic identity.”
The ICCI’s national school now holds 300 students.
Of even greater importance is the Mosque, which stands at the centre of the ICCI complex and attracts up to 5,000 worshippers on Holy Days.
Dr Selim is aware of the difficulties a Muslim person may have in maintaining one’s faith in a secular country – but he argues that the challenge can often be positive.
“There are challenges to faith in any place. In some ways, it is an advantage to be outside of your homeland.
“It can be too easy to remain faithful.
“Here, you are challenged and that can strengthen your faith, make you want to become more religious.
“And this I think is a good thing.”
It is a sign, perhaps, of the growing confidence of Muslims in Ireland that Dr. Selim is also willing to be a critic.
When I asked him what he thought the Irish have to learn from Islam, he considered the question carefully before responding.
“If you look at the Islamic states, they do not have the same issues with suicide that we have here in the west, in countries with such high levels of freedom.
“I think it is because people live in a spiritual vacuum and do not see themselves as body and soul.
“They put too much in material things, it’s not good.
“For just as your body needs to be fed, your soul needs to be nourished.
“This is a problem you find in the west, the lack of attention to the soul.”
Given that Ireland is a country wrestling with issues like suicide and mental health, perhaps Dr Selim’s perspective is worth considering.
Endorsing a No vote in the 2018 abortion referendum, Dr Selim and the ICCI opined that abortion “is not compassionate. It is cruel. It gives licence for murder.”
When I asked him about the referendum during our sit-down chat, he said: “I do not support abortion. It is killing. That is my personal belief and it is the teaching of Islam.
“But I respect democracy. There was a vote and this is the result. It does not mean we have to do it – and we will respect the law of the land because that is democracy.”
Regardless, it’s clear that he and other Muslims are increasingly at ease in Ireland – to the point of promoting change, not simply accepting it.