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- Written by James Carr
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“People spit in my face for being Muslim” was a comment made during this research by an Irish Muslim man. “Muhammed is dead" and "go back to your country” were slurs shouted at a Malaysian Muslim girl. These comments in isolation are just two instances of Islamophobia, or as I prefer to call it, anti-Muslim racism; as narrated by people who participated in the study discussed here. In themselves, of course they hardly constitute an evidence base, but the findings presented below offer more insight into hostility towards Muslims in Ireland than the Irish State has on record. As it stands today, the Irish State is blind to anti-Muslim racism as it does not systematically collect data on this phenomenon as a distinct manifestation of racist activity (see, for example, Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration 2014). Yet as will be demonstrated, there is no question that anti-Muslim racism is a reality for Muslim men, women and children in Ireland.
This study employed a range of research methods. A mix of differing methods were utilised in order to draw on the strengths of various research tools that, together, could provide a deeper understanding of the phenomenon at hand than either method could in isolation: Firstly, a survey that aimed to demonstrate levels of anti-Muslim racism was deemed vital for providing an evidence base of the presence of anti-Muslim racism in Ireland. Secondly, I also engaged in one-to-one interviews and group discussions with Muslim men and women. Together these methods provided an understanding of the subjective experiences of anti-Muslim racism and the perceptions held by the various participants towards the reporting and recording of this phenomenon. In total 345 Muslim men and women took part in this research; incorporating participants from a diverse range of ethno-national backgrounds, ages, genders (47% female, 53% male) and aspects of Islam. All participants were over the age of 18.
Anti-Muslim racism in Ireland
As stated above, there is a dearth of data on rates and experiences of anti-Muslim racism in Ireland. Therefore the findings related here break new ground in our understanding of this phenomenon in the Irish context. In the initial, survey, phase of this study, all participating Muslim men and women were first asked if they had experienced some form of hostility in the period from January 2010. Just over half of all participants indicated that they did experience some form of hostility in that timeframe. Given that this study centres on anti-Muslim racism, it was necessary to go a step further and ask a question to validate the centrality of a participant’s Muslimness in these experiences. The reality is stark. Over one-in-three (36%) survey participants felt they had been targeted specifically on the basis of their being identified as Muslim.
The manner in which this hostility manifested varied. Participants reported experiencing physical assaults (22%) ranging from being struck, having hijabs forcibly removed, to being pushed or spat at; some reported being threatened or harassed (20%). A white Irish male revert to Islam recalls his experiences of physical forms of abuse: “I have been pushed and have had people spit in my face, for being Muslim". Fewer participants (14%) indicated that they had property damaged. Those who detailed how this manifested referred to tyres being slashed, having eggs thrown at their home, inter alia. Unlike other jurisdictions, attacks on Muslim property such as mosques did not feature in this study (European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia 2006). Arguably, this may be the result of the limited number of recognisably Islamic structures in Ireland. The predominant form of hostility experienced was verbal assault (81%). The verbal abuse meted out to the participants, further elaborated below, frequently makes direct reference to the contemporary form of racialised Muslim identity, indicative of an internationalised prejudicial image of Muslims and Islam.
As with data on anti-Muslim hostility, there is also dearth of official information on discrimination as experienced by Muslim men and women in Ireland on the basis of their religious identity. Reflecting the questions of hostility, participants were asked about their experiences of discrimination in the period from January 2010. One third of all participants indicated that they had experienced anti-Muslim discrimination. As with anti-Muslim hostility, experiences of discrimination, elaborated further below, are heavily gendered with Muslim women (40%) almost twice as likely as Muslim men (22%) to experience anti-Muslim discrimination. It is worth noting at this point that there are striking similarities between the experiences of participants here in Ireland with those present in international evidence of anti-Muslim racism (Poynting and Noble 2004).
Experiences of converts to Islam
The following quotes are provided by white Irish converts to Islam. Here, they elaborate how they are perceived by some in Irish society as ‘Other’ and the experiences of verbal and physical abuse that can ensue on the basis of a perceived betrayal.
When they find out you’re Irish they feel that like traitor…but what because you’ve put a scarf on your head? Or because you changed your religion?...then [you] are no more an Irish person, you have then lost your identity of who you are, you are…classed as non-Irish. (Aalia, Irish female Muslim)
Faced with this misplaced perception of being a ‘traitor’, participants were keen to emphasise their own Irish identity and how they do belong here in Ireland, something which they saw as being taken away from them. The comments of a white Irish male Muslim revert who participated in the survey are indicative of such sentiments: “my family have been traced back to the 1700's in Ireland on both sides.”
During a focus group discussion, Jada, a white Irish female revert to Islam shared her experience as she went about her duty as a medical professional where a male patient: “said take that thing rag off your head you’re too good looking for that…you’re betraying Ireland…” Similarly, Zaheen, a female Irish revert to Islam describes her experience with a male assailant:
...I just told him: 'look I’m not a terrorist and I’m not a foreigner. I’m Irish, and he just kept going and going, just getting more and more [aggressive], then we crossed the road and he turned around to me and he spat in my face, and I was just really shocked because that was the first; I’ve had comments before just about terrorism and bin Laden’s wife and all these things, like whatever, but that was the first kind of like physical abuse.
These assumptions that present Muslimness as a risky community, incompatible with notions of Irishness, were not limited to members of the public alone.
The following example details an experience of religious profiling by the Irish State. Ehan, a male Muslim participant explicitly presents the core of the concept of ‘suspect community’, a term originally coined in reference to Irish communities in the UK during the troubles. Ehan describes his experience and that of his friends as they were leaving an anti-war protest. Ehan notes how they were “singled out... [because] we just happened to look different”. When the time came to leave....
…we went to the car park to sit down and turn on the car…we’re just reversing to come out of the car park and head back…with the rest of the crowd and then Gards came. Two Gards in plain clothes and then two others in uniforms were standing in the near distance…they came to us and I could see most of our colleagues…going; it was just our car left in the car park near the Shannon airport...I was sitting in the back, so two guys [Gardaí] came in the car…inside the car and we just took it easy…they’re [asking] what’s your name? Do you have an ID on you? You know, whose car is this?? Where did you get it?? Where do you live?? When did you come to Ireland what do you think of Saudi Arabia?? What do you think of Hezbollah?? (Ehan South-Asian Irish Muslim male)
The impact of practices such as these that pathologise Muslim identity, positioning it as being inextricably associated with a ‘suspect’ identity permeates beyond the immediate context. Indeed, the repercussions of such profiling can inform broader experiences of hostility and discrimination being meted out to Muslim men and women. Consistent across these lived experiences is the theme of Muslims as a suspect group:
In June 2011 - at the Luas station, an older man said to me and shouted, "she has a bomb in her bag, she has a bomb in her bag", because I was wearing (burqa). (Arabic Muslim female, survey participant)
Muslim communities in Ireland are incredibly diverse. In this study alone there are over fifty different countries of origin and a vibrant diversity of ethnic groups. Bearing this diversity in mind it is necessary “to account for multiple grounds of identity” and how they might intersect in the participants’ experiences of hostility and discrimination. Survey participants were asked to indicate which aspects of their identity they felt played a role in their experiences of anti-Muslim racism. Skin colour (47%), cultural identity (45%) and real or perceived immigrant status (37%) as markers of ‘Otherness’ all featured strongly as intersectional factors in the participants’ experiences; demonstrating the multiple bases of exclusion that Muslim men and women can encounter in Ireland. Qualitative commentary also highlighted how ‘traditional’ racisms intersect with anti-Muslim sentiment: “[been] called: nigger, bin Laden, go back to where you came from” (Male, Arabic-Irish survey participant).
However, of all the personal identity characteristics to be cited by participants, the overriding trait indicated as being a factor in experiences of anti-Muslim racism was religious identity. In experiences of hostility the vast majority or participants (81%) stated that their religious identity played a role in their being targeted for abuse. A similar number (87%) felt their religious identity factored in their experience of discrimination. The importance of Muslim identifiability is made perfectly clear in comments shared by participants. Fahima details the experience of a female Muslim friend who wears the niqab had when out shopping with her young child.
[A Muslim] lady [at] one of the kiosk sweet sections in the centre of the shopping centres [was with] her young son; he…wanted a packet of crisps…this lady wears the niqab…she stood there [at the counter]…the [staff member] was engrossed in a conversation with a friend across the counter…she [Muslim woman] said “excuse me!” She was ignored. She said four times and she was ignored, completely dismissed…another lady came up to purchase something and was served immediately.
My findings provide strong evidence that there is a relationship between being identified as Muslim and anti-Muslim racism. Even if the identification as Muslim is misplaced:
My [friend]...was stabbed…there was two guys, he was outside his door...they shouted you F####n Osama bin Laden… [a] knife ripped through his hand. (Kulvir, a South-Asian Sikh male whose friend and co-religionist was assaulted on the mistaken assumption that he was Muslim)
The evidence gathered during this research demonstrates that both Muslim men and women experience discrimination when they are identified as Muslim. When we think of a person being recognisably Muslim we may first think of the hijab, the burqa or the long beard. However, revealing one's name in a job application also reveals Muslimness. The following male participant found his job interview focussed inappropriately on his faith even though he was devoid of overt markers of Muslimness but for his name.
During job interviews, questions are more focused on religion, although that I do not practice it. It is more like hiring an Irish [person] for management position and ask[ing] him/her about being Catholic. For every single interview I attended, it is exclusively about Islam and Muslims, the fact of being secular doesn't mean anything, then and during the interviews. I know it very well that I was asked to come for questioning and having a job, after an interview focused on what type is my religion rather than my educational background or previous multinational experience, [the interview] was ending as it always used to end. I became intimidated of attending further interviews because of the religious or ethnic prejudice [that] has already formed in the mentality of the interviewer and I became guilty until proven innocent. (Arabic male survey participant)
A female perspective on employment discrimination is provided by Jeehan, a Black African Muslim woman who wears a “full long hijab”, who recalls her experiences of looking for work during an interview:
I went to a clothes shop and a restaurant/coffee shop. The girl in the coffee shop actually she smiled “I don’t think you’ll get work here”, meaning because of the way I was dressed. I left CV for the manager who was out. I left CV in sports clothes shop. The guy working there, not the manager, said “I don’t think you will get a job because of the way you are dressed...he didn’t even hide it...when I left him I thought maybe he said that because he compared with my clothes to the uniform of the shop. At this point I was wearing a full long hijab, I was new here.
Analyses of the different areas where participants reported experiencing discrimination reveals an interesting pattern when broken out across the sexes. In areas where Muslim men become more identifiably Muslim, for example where they have provided their names in job applications or in accessing education, Muslim men experience similar or higher rates of anti-Muslim discrimination than Muslim women. However, in areas where being identified as Muslim requires the presence of more overt markers of Muslimness, Muslim women reported higher rates of discrimination in locations such as public transport (44%) or restaurants (16%), compared to respective rates (14% and 6%) for Muslim men.
Gender and anti-Muslim racism in Ireland
I now want to turn specifically to the experiences of female Muslims in Ireland and the gendered inflections of anti-Muslim racism. Differences arise in terms of gender and how recognisably one is as Muslim. The vast majority of Muslim women (86%) that took part in this survey stated that they were “identifiably Muslim” compared to less than half of Muslim men (46%). Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Muslim women (96%) who experienced hostility in this study reported that they were religiously identifiable compared with just under half of Muslim men. A similar pattern emerged in relation to discrimination where again the vast majority of Muslim women (98%) who experienced discriminatory practices stated they were religiously identifiable compared to a much smaller number of Muslim men (45%).
Survey findings are clear on this point with Muslim women (44%) reporting higher levels of anti-Muslim hostility than Muslim men (28%); and, as already noted, female Muslims (40%) reported higher levels of discrimination than their male co-religionists (22%) overall. Differences also emerged in the survey and interview data that demonstrate while taunts such as ‘terrorist’, ‘suicide bomber’, ‘foreigner’ and ‘Paki’ may be deployed in a similar manner across genders; others are peculiar to men or women. There are differences in the perceived commoditisation of Muslim women, clear for example in that while Muslim men are called ‘bin Laden’, Muslim women are referred to as ‘bin Laden’s wife’. The following quote details experiences of both verbal and physical abuse experienced by a female Arabic Muslim survey participant:
Been called ‘filthy Arab’, hijab pulled, drenched with beer…Empty can [was] thrown at me from moving car while yelling ‘F-ing terrorist’.
These findings demonstrate that, in the Irish context, one's sex has real implications in terms of being targeted for anti-Muslim hostility. The targeting of Muslim women is directly related to their identifiability as Muslim. The racialised symbolism of Muslim women being oppressed is a powerful theme in this study evident in both manifest and latent hostility. “You get the same questions, you know, the women are put down...is your husband domineering?” (Jada, female Irish revert to Islam). This perception of being oppressed is met with frustration. Participants demonstrated what I refer to as ‘oppression fatigue’ as succinctly put by Samira: “It’s really tiring” and sarcastically by Sara “you no longer care; you are like: yeah I’m oppressed!!”
Not only do the women express their tedium at being typecast as oppressed, submissive ‘victims’, they are also keen to demonstrate that they are their own agents, that they are intelligent, engaging people, despite the stereotype of Muslim women as intellectual ‘dopes’ that cannot ‘save’ themselves. In the case of Irish reverts to Islam, a common perception they are greeted with is one whereby they are deemed lacking in both agency and intellect and must have been coerced and simultaneously duped into converting to Islam. This marks a further point of frustration for female Muslim converts who are keen to underscore that it was their decision to choose Islam, not their husbands’:
I chose to be this religion. It’s not because I’m married to a Muslim, because everyone meets me [asks] ‘oh you must be married to a Muslim then and that’s why you’re a Muslim’. Hello!! I have my own brain! I can think for myself! (Ghadir, Irish female Muslim)
The discourse of oppressed Muslim women also serves to ‘legitimise’ the deployment of ‘liberation tactics’ by those would be ‘liberators’ of the oppressed. The impact these ‘tactics’ have on the Muslim female participants in this study includes shock, depression, feelings of fear and vulnerability. At times these tactics manifest as assaults which sometimes involve threatening behaviour and vulgar sexualised practices. A female participant details a “very shocking…atrocious” experience that happened to two teenage Muslim girls (aged 15 and 16) on the LUAS in Dublin.
[They were] coming home, they took the LUAS one day and there was some people…a couple, a young man and a young girl and they were remarking on….they used the term the alleged chastity of the girls and they performed oral sex on the on the LUAS that day and that was absolutely, I remember [one of the girls] being absolutely distraught she actually jumped off the LUAS at the spot.
It is ironic that in all of the examples above, Muslim women, assumed to be oppressed and repressed, and alleged ‘property’ of Muslim men, are being ‘liberated’ through acts of coercion and (re)appropriation. Instead of being liberated, these Muslim women become manifestly oppressed at the hands of their assailants. These acts of ‘liberation’ are not always of a sexual nature, yet the hijab and the niqab retain a central role in the experiences of anti-Muslim hostility as directed towards Muslim women. Participants recalled, with notable similarities, the manner in which their hijab or niqab had been forcibly removed by complete strangers. Indeed, it is almost expected. As one survey participant put it: “since I am a female Muslim I got to experience that my scarf got pulled down off my head in school” (Arabic Muslim woman).
The findings discussed here on anti-Muslim racism illustrate not only the fact that this form of phenomenon is alive and well in Ireland, but also the complex and multifaceted manner in which it persists. The experiences detailed in this study may not be those of every Muslim in Ireland. However, for some of those participating in this research racism is perceived as ‘normal’...
[Y]ou take it as a norm, you know people don’t like Islam you’re going to get that racism but we just think like, ok, it’s going to happen we just have to take it and be strong from it like because there’s nowhere we can report it or if we do report there’s nothing done about it. [Zaheen]
It is striking and disheartening to hear repeated in so many narratives, not only that racism is something experienced so much, but also the implicit resignation to the normalcy of this reality on the part of some participants. If the Irish State is serious about policing racism, effective action must be taken to change this ‘norm’ as described by participants. A first point of action could be the collection, collation and analysis by the State, in particular by An Garda Síochána (Irish police service) to ensure smarter, informed police practice.
Ameli, S.R., Merali, A. and Ehan Shahghasemi (2012) France and the Hated Society: Muslim experiences. Wembley: Islamic Human Rights Commission.
Creswell, J. (2007) Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing among five approaches. 2nd ed., Thousand Oaks: Sage.
European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (2006) “Muslims in the European Union: Discrimination and Islamophobia” [online], available: http://fra.europa.eu/fraWebsite/attachments/Manifestations_EN.pdf
Heckathorn, D.D. (1997) “Respondent-Driven Sampling: A new approach to the study of hidden populations”, Social Problems, Vol.44(2), 174-99.
Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration (2014) “Reported Racist Crime” [online], available: http://www.integration.ie/website/omi/omiwebv6.nsf/page/statistics-RacistIncidentsstatisticscrime-en
Poynting, S. and Noble, G. (2004) Living with Racism: The experience and reporting by Arab and Muslim Australians of discrimination, abuse and violence since 11 September 2001. Report to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission [online] available: http://www.stepone.org.au/media/1712/living%20with%20racism.pdf
James Carr is a postdoctoral researcher based in the Department of Sociology, University of Limerick and member of the interdisciplinary Hate and Hostility Research Group in UL.
APPENDIX: a file which represents an important example of anti-Muslim material in the Irish context. This was sent to Muslim communities last November and given to me through some of my research contacts. Other potential source of images can be accessed via the link below.