Amid Rising Islamophobia in Ireland, Leading Imam Takes to the Polls

DUBLIN — Nestled behind a South Asian restaurant, a hookah lounge and a tire repair shop is home to one of Ireland’s preeminent mosques: The Al-Mustafa Islamic Center. In March, on the first Jummah (Friday worship day) of Ramadan, hundreds of Muslim worshippers filed into the mosque, swapping their shoes for flip flops as they performed ablutions to purify themselves before prayers. Men whispered in Urdu, Arabic and English as they packed into the prayer hall, sitting in lines on the ground to listen to Sheikh Umar al-Qadri’s Khutbah, or weekly sermon. 

Al-Qadri, the leader of the congregation, spoke of the importance of Ramadan as a gift and a pathway to the gates of paradise. However, he then posed a question that strayed away from the usual theological sermon.

“How many of you have registered to vote?” he asked. 

In the packed prayer hall, only a handful of worshippers raised their hands.  

It was an unusual but not unexpected turn. Just about everyone in the congregation knew that, just a few weeks earlier, al-Qadri had been the victim of a violent attack. But rather than dwell on his suffering, he reached for a solution.

“It is very important we participate in the elections in June. Right now there are some people that are spreading Islamophobia,” he said. “It is time we represent ourselves in public office. If you don’t register, it means you have no voice.”

Anti-immigrant sentiment persisted in Ireland this year. In November, hundreds of Irish rioted after an Algerian immigrant wielding a knife injured a woman and three young children in Dublin. Anti-migrant protests followed, becoming violent as demonstrators attacked public transport, looted private businesses, and ambushed police vehicles. On February 15th, al-Qadri was assaulted in what he said was a Muslim-hatred fueled attack.

On the day of the attack, al-Qadri said he received a call from a man who said he was looking for a sheikh to officiate a marriage. However, when Dr. al-Qadri arrived, he became suspicious when he didn’t see any cars outside the house that would be expected for a big occasion. When al-Qadri called the man, he told him to drive to the end of the block. There, al-Qadri stepped out of the car and greeted two men. Moments later he blacked out and woke up in the driver's seat of his car, with injuries to his jaw and a chipped tooth.  

“I was confused,” al Qadri said. “I looked at my hand, my watch was still there. My phone was there. So then I realized it’s not a robbery, I was just attacked for who I am.” 

Irish authorities continue to investigate the incident.  

The sheikh is a prominent Sunni Pakistani cleric who moved to Ireland from the Netherlands in 2003. He first came to work  as a content specialist in Ebay’s legal department, but soon Muslim immigrants turned to him to set up a mosque because of his past expertise in Islamic studies. Over time the modest mosque became a full Islamic center, with over 500 members. 

Upon entering the Islamic Centre, the former commercial warehouse was clearly not built to house one of Ireland’s largest Muslim congregations. At the entrance, there is a narrow corridor, where worshippers cram through to enter the main hall. The main hall is spacious but relatively empty: a portable white qiblah, the structure that designates the direction of Mecca, stands in the front of the room. Most walls are empty, but one holds a bookcase with dozens of Quarans. 

When I asked al-Qadri about relations between Muslim and Irish communities, his face brightened. “It’s tremendous.” He spoke of different bridge-building initiatives between Ireland’s faith communities. He holds an annual Iftar celebration to mark the end of the fast on nights of Ramadan that is attended by prominent Irish religious leaders, including the Catholic Archbishop and an Orthodox Rabbi. After the attack, Al-Qadri said countless Irish citizens reached out to him extending their prayers. 

However, al-Qadri said that there has been a noticeable rise in anti-migrant rhetoric over the past couple years, especially reflected on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. Following the attack, dozens of Irish X users claimed the entire event was a hoax. Some users vilified his Muslim identity, saying he should go back to where he came from and mocking his traditional thobe.  

Al-Qadri, 41, stands out from other middle-aged Irish citizens. He has a well-kept dark beard, glasses, and sports a traditional black thobe. While he may stand out, he speaks with a light Irish accent, signaling that he has been in Ireland for some time. 

Some X users denied the attack happened. One prominent anti-migrant user, Irish Git, posted a video claiming the Sheikh’s account was fabricated. 

“People started finding holes and inconsistencies in (al-Qadri’s) fairy tale,” he said. “The gig is up, it’s game over. I wonder when the next audition is.” 

The video gained nearly 8 thousand views. 

Dr. Eugenia Siapera, co-director for the University College of Dublin’s Centre for Digital Policy, said xenophobic rhetoric in Irish social media circles accelerated since the pandemic. She said that anti-migrant messaging was also exacerbated by Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, and his purge of its trust and safety team. While she said the majority of Irish do not harbor far-right views, Siapera said this group is having an increasing impact on the national debate. 

“The fact that they're vocal means that they're influencing policy, even if their views do not reflect the wider public opinion,” she said. “I think it's going to get worse before it gets any better.” 

Al-Qadri reiterated Dr. Siapera’s concerns. While he said that he believed Twitter previously had a troubling left-wing bias, its shift to the right presents a new danger to Ireland’s Muslim community.

“What has happened since Elon Musk took over, he has given a free hand to anyone to spread hatred,” he said. “That has led to the rise of anti Muslim sentiments in Ireland.” 

In response to public criticism, X released a statement this past September reaffirming their commitment to combating prejudice. X said that it expanded its policies around hateful and violent speech. 

“We are committed to combating hatred – particularly when they are directed at persecuted groups,” the statement said. 

Dr. James Carr, a sociologist at the University of Limerick, said the “replacement theory,” a conspiracy that claims liberal elites are looking to replace domestic citizens with immigrants, influences far-right rhetoric targeting Ireland’s Muslims. 

“The Irish context is not unusual,” Carr said. “It’s the same experience we see internationally.”

Carr noted that after the attack on al-Qadri, dozens of tweets circulated showing a sticker purporting to be an advertisement for the Islamic Centre calling for the implementation of Islamic “Sharia” law in Ireland. While the stickers were a hoax, the Journal said posts showing the sticker had been viewed over 100,000 times. 

Increasing Muslim voter participation has been an issue for al-Qadri even before the February attack. He has encouraged the candidacy of Asad Ali, a 36-year-old immigrant from Pakistan who will be running for office in the village of Ongar, just outside of Dublin. Mr. Ali, who will be running with the conservative Irish party Fianna Fail, is looking to become the first Muslim on the Village Council. He has attended the Islamic Center for the past five years. 

“I’ve been here a long time, we never had to face such issues: the attack on al-Qadri and the riots in the city center,” he said. “I’m a very proud Irish. We just need to build bridges, the vast majority of people in this country are very welcoming.” 

Others in al-Qadri’s congregation reiterated that Ireland has been a welcoming place. Faisal Afridi, a computer science student at Dublin City University, immigrated to Ireland with his family from Pakistan. Always feeling welcomed by the native Irish in his community, Afridi said he was shocked by the riots that broke out in November. 

“I actually never expected anything like that to happen that night,” he said. “It just happened out of nowhere.”

Carr said that it has been difficult to measure Islamaphobic hate crimes because Irish authorities do not have the most accurate data. He said many hate crimes are recorded as standard criminal offenses. However, Carr added that new hate crime legislation could be passed this year that will address this issue. 

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “One incident is one too many.” 

Despite recent events, al-Qadri remains optimistic about the future prospects for Muslims in Ireland. He even wants to meet his attackers, and ask them what led them to commit this act.

“We're human beings,” he said. “We're normal human beings like everybody else.” 

After al-Qadri finished the Khutbah, he took his place towards the front of the prayer hall, standing with his fellow worshippers as they prepared for prayers. They recited the Fatiha, the first verse of the Quran recited before prayers. The men looked down in reflection, interlocking their arms across their chests. Finally they fell to the ground facing the qiblah, whispering praises of God. While legitimate concerns remained, Ireland’s Muslim community remained steadfast in their faith. 

Fatiha: The Opening

Fatiha: The Opening

NEW YORK — A man named Sayeed, one of the mosque’s leaders, directs dozens of worshipers to line up in three rows before the Friday jummah prayers begin at Masjid Manhattan. Some men arrive late and find themselves hastily removing their shoes in the hallway and finding some of the few empty spaces among the three rows of men. 

The modest mosque on 30 Cliff Street in Manhattan’s financial district attracts Sunni worshipers of all ages and backgrounds. The room reflects the diversity of New York’s Muslims: Arab, South Asian, Black, Caucasian. Each stands side by side in anticipation for Jummah afternoon’s two Rak’at (a series of prescribed movements and prayers).

But before each Rak’ah, the worshipers must recite the Fatiha or "the opener." The Fatiha is the first surah (chapter) in the Quran. Abdullah Hossain, a recent PhD graduate in electrical engineering, recites the Fatiha in the front of the room.

In the name of God the most merciful

All praise is for God, lord of all the worlds

The most compassionate

The most merciful

Owner of the day of judgment 

You alone we worship, you alone we ask for help 

Guide us along the straight path 

The path of those you have blessed, not those you are displeased with or those you have led astray. 

As Hossain leads the prayer, each man focuses their attention on themselves, tucking their chins and keeping their gaze lowered to the space directly in front of them. They interlock their arms across their chest, preparing themselves for the Rak’ah. Every line of the Fatiha reminds them of their purpose as Muslims. 

Sheikh Mostafa Shekel, the leader of the congregation, explains the importance of the Fatiha. “We recite the Fatiha before every prayer. It is the beginning of everything we do.” The prayer represents the core tenets of the Islamic faith: God is one, he has no equivalent, he displays compassion and mercy, and will determine the fate of each person on the day of judgment.  

The sheikh explains that as Muslims, they must follow the straight path as described in the Fatiha. “In Christianity, Jesus forgives the people for their sins and they are redeemed,” he says. “Islam is not like that.” In Islam, he adds, each Muslim must follow the path of Allah and strive for excellence in the path to prepare for the ultimate day of judgment. 

After Hossain finishes the Fatiha, each worshiper bends forward and puts their hands on their knees. They then place their knees on the ground, and bow towards the front of the room. 

Each man then whispers from side to side: 

Subhana Rabbi Al Ala 

Glory be to my lord almighty. 

They are now spiritually prepared to pursue the path of righteousness.