A WEST Clare Muslim convert has described last week’s murder of 12 people in an attack on the offices of a French satirical magazine as “an evil, cowardly and barbaric act”.
It was reported that Al-Qaeda in Yemen has claimed responsibility for planning and funding the Charlie Hebdo massacre in revenge for ridiculing Islam’s prophet, Muhammad.
As the number of Muslim converts in Ireland grows, one Quilty man, who converted to Islam nearly a decade ago, believes the voice of Irish Muslims is missing from the discussion on the rise of extremism.
Last week’s attacks in Paris were condemned by Christopher (Yusuf) Pender, who believes such incidents only serve to diminish the reputation of Muslims and do nothing to spread the message of the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an.
Yusuf also compared what he sees as a creeping increase in Islamophobia here with the treatment of Irish people in Britain during the Troubles.
“My father lived in London in the 1960s. He worked as a bus conductor. In the late 1960s, early 1970s, when the Troubles were going on in Northern Ireland, there were bombs going off here and there and he used to get lots of abuse saying, ‘you Irish are doing this and that’. He was trying to buoy me up a bit and he was saying to me, ‘look the Irish know what it is like, having gone through that themselves, having all been tarred with the one brush because of the actions of the IRA’. It is the same for Muslims now,” Yusuf told The Clare Champion.
“These acts feel as alien and as frightening to Muslims as they are to non-Muslims. Muslims are just normal human beings. They live, they go to work, they take care of their families. They just happen to have a common religion and unfortunately these days there is a rising tide of extremism but it is still very alien to ordinary every day Muslims, as much as it is to other Irish people. The difference is that Muslims are sometimes made to feel that they are responsible in a sense when they find it hard to understand how they could be held responsible for such an evil, cowardly and barbaric act just because people proclaim broadly the same faith as them,” he added.
“This is an extremely testing time for the Muslim community worldwide and Irish Muslims have not been spared from the pressures currently pushing in upon us, partly because of the horrendous action of extremists but also partly because of a perceived animosity towards Islam and Muslims’ causes, in part by the ideological clash between both secular and religious ideals,” he outlined.
Yusuf finds the publishing of satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad offensive but he believes people of other religions can identify with this sentiment.
“A practicing, believing Christian, for example, would have been very, very hurt when The Life of Brian came out and many Christians were very upset about that. It was banned in many countries because of the love those people had for Jesus Christ because he is their prophet,” he said.
“Obviously for us, we love the holy prophet; we feel pain and hurt when he is portrayed in that way. But the reality is that even in the Holy Qur’an, God tells the Prophet Muhammad ‘when they abuse you, turn away from them and say, peace’. This is the reaction the prophet is giving. If anyone has a right to take revenge or retribution for blasphemy, it would be him. So we have to follow his way,” he continued.
Yusuf believes that while freedom of the press is important, freedom to express upset and hurt is equally important but says this must be done in a measured way.
“If people have the right to offend, we have the right to be upset, to be angry and have a right to express it within the confines of the law. These reactions [the attacks in Paris] are un-Islamic and barbaric and instead of retrieving the image of the holy prophet, we are making things worse. The only way that Muslims are going to retrieve the image of the holy prophet in people’s eyes is for our behaviour to be such that people will question where we are getting this behaviour. And people will see that we are getting it from the Prophet Muhammad,” he said.
Yusuf labelled the Paris attackers as “disturbed”, arguing that they used their religious beliefs as an excuse for their actions.
“It is impossible to get inside the head of someone who would do this. Invariably the people who would commit these acts, like people who walk into theatres and shoot people, be it religiously motivated or racially motivated, they all have a good plausible reason according to their own belief system but the reality is when you investigate the person, you find that there is something wrong inside. They have some emotional or psychological sickness that has qualified or validated itself through some kind of belief system. But when we look underneath, we see that these people are disturbed. If they didn’t have a certain religion, they would have expressed this in another way that would have been just as bad,” he stated.
Conversion to Islam very natural for Yusuf
Christopher Pender grew up in a Catholic family in Quilty. Now called Yusuf, he describes himself as a spiritual person and recalls researching and reading about different religions before deciding to convert to Islam in 2005.
“I have a typical Roman Catholic background. It is not staunch in that sense but growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I would have been fairly religious. When you live in a small village, religion is more so part of your life. It is central not just religiously but culturally as well. It would have been something that would have been part of our lives. We would have had a belief in God,” he said.
He converted to Islam at age 23 and says it was “very natural” for him.
“When someone hears about conversion, they think about leaving one religion and joining another but I don’t feel like I have left Christianity in that sense. We believe in the bible, we believe in Jesus, we believe in the Virgin Mary. Islam, in its teaching, accepts and acknowledges the truthfulness of all prophets so I didn’t have to leave anything, as such, rather just accept another prophet and another book, which to me made more sense and the teachings were more clear and more beautiful. It was very natural for me. I studied Islam myself for two years on my own and I made the decision to become a Muslim,” he recalled.
“I was living at home at the time. I had a keen interest in religion and I used to read the Bible. I looked at other religions too, like Buddism and Judaism and had an interest and there is something good in all religions. Every religion has something good but there was something in Islam that spoke to me and it is a comprehensive way of living your life. A way that in every aspect of your life there is an element of worship; in your work; in your home life; when you went out and there was a strong sense of worship, praying five times a day and a constant remembrance of God and I felt through Islam that connection with God that I was seeking so it felt very natural to me. I didn’t feel I was accepting something that was foreign or strange because I looked into it a lot,” he added.
“It was 2005 and 9/11 had happened. Before I researched Islam, myself and my family would have had a kind of negative view of Islam because we were viewing Islam through the lens of what was happening at the time. My parents knew I was interested in Islam. They didn’t think it was a big deal if I was researching or reading books or anything like that. But when it came to a point where they saw I was walking on one path they had some concerns, naturally, as all loving parents would but not to the point where there was ever anything more. They knew me, they knew that I was their son, they knew that I was a mature enough person and there wasn’t any kind of tension or anything like that,” he recalled.
Today, Yusuf lives in Galway where he works as an IT analyst and is a husband, father and an active member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. He regularly attends the Maryam Mosque, the first purpose-built mosque in the city, which opened last September.
“Times have changed a lot now. I am only in my 30s but I see a difference between my generation growing up and this generation. A lot has changed in Ireland in 15 years. The world is much more compact now. It is more of a global village. Years ago, you would not have had as much immigration. In general, the nature of the Irish people is very open and welcoming and they easily absorbed the best of those cultures and accepted them and I think that this kind of change has enriched Ireland,” he said.
However, while his experience as an Irish Muslim is broadly positive, Yusuf sees a distinct difference between how he is treated when he is on his own and the abuse meted out to him when he is in public with his wife.
“I don’t look like a Muslim, in that I don’t wear a robes and I have a small beard but that is quite fashionable at the moment. So when I walk around, people don’t know I am Muslim,” he explained.
“I got married in 2010 but my wife wears the hijab and when I started walking with her or going here or there with her, I was shocked that we started to receive a lot of comments that were quite hurtful and sometimes people would shout at me ‘you are a traitor’ and shout ‘terrorist’ and things like that. It hasn’t happened very often but it has happened enough and people have given us strange looks and that kind of thing,” he revealed.
“This has happened mainly in Galway. The mentality in the city is different to the rural area. It is very disappointing and it is very hurtful and when that kind of thing happens, I worry about what happens when my wife goes out on her own. I wonder how she will be if someone makes that comment. It gave me an insight into that underbelly and made me realise that there is an element of racism but you have silly people in every society and it is a small minority,” he added.
Yusuf and other members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community host an Islamic information stall in the city each week, where they provide information on their denomination.
“We have banners that say ‘Love For All, Hatred For None’. That is the message we want to get across and holding that stall is the litmus test for what the mood is on the street. Last week when we did the stall, I did hear people making comments like ‘I can’t believe these people have the cheek to be on the street after what happened’ and ‘I hope ye had a good week in Paris’ and stuff like that,” he recalled.
“I understand that people are afraid and worried and are letting off steam and I personally don’t have a problem with that. I am Irish, I have a different perspective. If you come from another country and you feel, in a sense, a guest in Ireland, then maybe you would take it more to heart and feel more afraid of that but it is a minority of people still. I mean the Irish people are still very open, still very accepting,” Yusuf concluded.
By Nicola Corless