FOCUS ON IRELAND
A major change that has occurred during the last decade is the growing presence of Muslims, who now make up the second largest religious community in Ireland after Christians. Even though Muslims here come from many countries, including Ireland, they constitute a group that has a world view noticeably different than that of most of the population. Therefore, how Muslims and the rest of the population get on together will have a major impact on Ireland’s future and on the vital process of integration.
Dialogue can help to insure that Muslims and Christians, as individuals and communities, build bridges rather than walls, and include rather than exclude each other. Interfaith Dialogue aims to bring about the understanding, mutual respect and cooperation essential for both integration and social harmony. The negative situations that have developed in countries such as France, Germany and the UK put the need for interfaith dialogue into perspective.
Over the past two years, a project entailing a series of workshops and meetings involving Muslims and Christians has taken place at various locations around the country. Set against the background of Ireland’s changing population over the last ten years the workshops have helped us to understand some of the difficulties we face in Ireland and also identified responses to them (Reports from some of these events are available at www.coistine.ie/dialogue ).
The workshops began by assessing the current relations between Muslims and Christians in Ireland.
THE CURRENT SITUATION IN IRELAND
- The workshops identified a general lack of understanding and even ignorance of each other’s religions.
- There is a lack of both formal and social communication and interaction between Muslims and Christians.
- The present goodwill between Muslims and Christians in Ireland is very positive. However, it is superficial, and needs to be deepened through education for greater mutual understanding and through interaction that builds relationships and trust.
- The importance of Interreligious Dialogue to the future social wellbeing of Ireland is not fully understood or appreciated.
- Interfaith dialogue must be prioritised, especially by leaders who can best affect change.
- Many people, Muslim, Christian, and those of no faith, are apathetic towardsinteg ration and dialogue.
- The media poses a huge challenge – Islam is often portrayed negatively, engendering an unfounded fear of Muslims living here in Ireland.
- There is a lack of education and training for dialogue.
- The need for religious leaders to come together and to lead by example emerged as a core issue during the workshops. Since interreligious dialogue is, for members of both faiths, something new, unfamiliar and which may cause anxiety, the participation of religious leaders is crucial for its success.
- There is a need for people with expertise in dialogue who can guide and help people to engage in meaningful dialogue.
- Common ground for dialogue needs to be established: this includes the building of mechanisms, and providing occasions and structures through which people can meet and engage with each other in a safe and constructive manner.
The workshops and meetings also made practical suggestions as to how relations and interaction between Muslims and Christians in Ireland can be improved. Ultimately these suggestions can only be implemented by the joint action of members of the Muslim and Christian communities. A certain level of dialogue will take place naturally as we meet and interact. However, for dialogue to be successful, leadership and organisation are essential. Faith groups have organisation, structures, established networks and direct contact with local communities. If religious leaders are willing to participate in dialogue then these invaluable resources could be used to promote contact and cooperation.
There is also a role for government, both national and local, in facilitating dialogue as a means to achieving the social cohesion and harmony that is the very reason for their existence. The following practical suggestions were made in the workshops:
(a) ESTABLISH OCCASIONS AT WHICH MUSLIMS AND CHRISTIANS INTERACT AND MEET. These could focus on areas of common interest such as community safety, neighbourhood concerns, or simply to exchange information about customs or religious occasions. These events will help to break down barriers, overcome stereotypes and create relationships. This will allow trust to grow and will, in time, allow tensions or contentious issues to be addressed in a constructive and non-polemical way.
During one of the workshops, a methodology for initial meetings between Muslims and Christians emerged. It specified that it is better to focus discussion on a specific issue rather than a broad topic such as interreligious dialogue. Focusing on a particular issue will let people know that the occasion is not a debate or about potentially contentious religious differences. This is a much more practical approach that will help the development of the shared common ground upon which people of both faiths may safely engage in dialogue. Using this method participants can:
- Come to know that they are welcome.
- Gain an experience of interaction which is constructive and not argumentative.
- Realise that their beliefs will be respected.
A neutral body could best facilitate initial contact between Muslims and Christians in a local area. Perhaps a voluntary organisation or the local authority could fulfil this function. In this way, Muslim and Christian communities would be equal participants in the process. Initial meetings should take place in a communal location where all participants can feel welcome and comfortable.
(b) ESTABLISH A REGIONAL OR LOCAL MUSLIM CHRISTIAN FORUM. This structure could be both a forum for discussion and be responsible for overseeing the implementation of many of the suggestions made here. To succeed, a forum needs the participation of religious leaders from both faiths who could oversee the dialogue process in the local area. Agreed guidelines for dialogue could be established. The forum could, if necessary, have a mediation role that helps prevent community tensions and also be a credible body to challenge unfair media coverage.
(c) MAKE USE OF EXISTING CULTURAL, ART, SPORTING, SOCIAL AND LOCAL COMMUNITY EVENTS as occasions where mutual understanding appreciation and trust can grow, and where Muslims and Christians can experience “we” rather than “us” and “them.” Muslims should be invited to participate and also be willing to do so.
(d) OCCASIONS FOR EDUCATION AND EXCHANGE ARE NEEDED. Talks and presentations can help to increase understanding and to overcome barriers. If and when visits to each other’s places of worship take place, these occasions need to be explained and guided. This will ensure that offence or embarrassment is avoided and that the mutual respect needed for dialogue is shown.
(e) RESOURCES, INFORMATION MATERIALS, WORKSHOPS AND COURSES SHOULD BE MADE AVAILABLE by Muslim and Christian groups to promote a true understanding of each other. Courses could also have a particular focus on preparing people to engage in dialogue.
(f) MAKE BETTER USE OF THE MEDIA. Faith groups should use local media positively to promote interreligious understanding and respect. Journalists should be provided with information, thus making it easy for them to publish good news stories about Muslims and Christians. The media could also be used to publicise interfaith activities or events. In addition, inaccurate or biased reporting should be challenged.
(g) CONTACT LOCAL FAITH GROUPS with a view to engaging them in the dialogue process. Send faith groups information promoting dialogue in a concise form at that could then be easily used on notice-boards and in church or mosque bulletins.
(h) SEEK OR FACILITATE WAYS FOR FAITH LEADERS TO MEET AND ENGAGE WITH EACH OTHER. This is essential for meaningful dialogue.
(i) ORGANISE OR PARTICIPATE IN AN INTERFAITH PRAYER EVENT.
WHAT WE CAN DO AS IN DIVIDUALS
Make a personal commitment to dialogue and to preparing oneself for dialogue. You do not have to be an expert; but using the internet or resources such as this booklet to inform yourself about your neighbour’s faith will help.
- Engage in dialogue – make an effort to communicate and cooperate with neighbours of different faiths. Be the one who takes the first step.
- Greet neighbours on the occasion of their religious feasts.
- Show respect for the religious customs and practices of others.
- Challenge stereotyping or prejudice.
- Use any opportunity available to interact and mix with members of other faith communities.
- Focus on what we as Muslims and Christians hold in common as the context for dialogue.
- Encourage and teach children to respect people of other faiths and cultures, and to reject prejudice and bias.
- Seek to include or welcome members of other faiths in any activity, community service or voluntary work you may be involved in. Invite them to participate.
- Participate in courses or events at which one can learn more about the faith of others.
DO’S AND DON’TS
To facilitate interaction, contact and dialogue, there is a need to be sensitive to each other’s differing religious requirements and social norms. Some of these are listed here. Hopefully, this information will remove some of the initial fear we may have of causing offence to our dialogue partner.
SENSITIVITY TO GENDER SEPARATION: A Muslim woman is not expected to be alone with any male other than her husband or close male relatives. Therefore, in arranging any meeting or activity involving Muslim women it is courteous to let them know in advance who will be present.
SHAKING HANDS: In general Muslims do not shake hands with people of the opposite sex. If shaking hands does take place, do so with the right hand. It is important that men do not shake the hand of a Muslim woman, unless the latter takes the initiative by holding out her hand.
SHOES: These should be removed when entering the prayer or carpeted area in a Mosque. Some Muslims also remove their shoes at home. Non- Muslims should follow their lead.
DRESS: Muslims, male and female, are expected to dress modestly. This forbids tight body hugging or revealing clothes. Men are expected to be covered from elbows to knees, and women from neck to feet. Muslim women are also expected to wear some form of head covering. In practice, this can vary greatly. Some wear no head covering at all, while others use a variety, such as:
- the hijab, a simple headscarf.
- the niqab, revealing only the eyes.
- the burkah, completely veiling the head and body.
This variety is due to different interpretations of Islamic teaching, culture and social norms. Personal choice and local customs also contribute to this variety.
GREETINGS: “As-Salamu Alaikum” (Peace be upon you) is the norm al greeting that Muslims use with each other. While a tiny minority reserve its use for Muslims only, the vast majority of Muslims are happy and will not be offended if a non-Muslim greets them in this way. The response to this greeting is “Wa-alaikum as-Salam” (And Peace be upon you too).
RELIGIOUS DIETARY LAWS: Muslims do not eat pork (this includes ham, bacon and anything made from it like sausages, and many pizza toppings). Meat such as beef, lamb and chicken must be Halal (permitted) – i.e. slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law. Fish is permitted and vegetarian food is always acceptable. Most Muslims will eat prawns and similar seafood, but a minority will not. Food such as pastry will not be halal if it is made with lard or animal sourced ingredients. Alcohol is forbidden. For more information see:
www.islamhalal.com and also www.utsc.utoronto.ca/~facilities/documents/GuidetoHalalFoods.pdf
For Christians, no particular foods are forbidden. Alcohol is permitted by most Christian denominations, but becoming drunk is not. Some Christian denominations forbid alcohol. For occasions where Muslims and Christians socialise, the simplest approach would be to serve vegetarian food, fruit and soft drinks. If meat is served then it should be halal.
PLACES TO MEET: Meeting in a Coffee Shop is acceptable, but for many Muslims meeting in a place where alcohol is served is not. If the occasion is a formal interfaith meeting or discussion, a public or communal location would be advisable. When a relationship of trust is established, then meetings could, by mutual agreement, be rotated between Mosque and Church meeting spaces. With regard to times for meetings, avoid Fridays or Sundays, as these are the days for communal prayer in Muslim and Christian communities. Account also needs to be taken of the Feast Days of each religion (see below).
PRAYER TIMES: Muslims pray five times a day (morning, mid-day, mid- afternoon, evening and night). The specific clock times for these prayers varies throughout the year. Interfaith events or meetings may coincide with prayer times. Having a quiet and clean place available for prayer will be appreciated.
SOCIALISING: Muslims have strict views about dress, alcohol, dietary laws and the unsupervised mixing of genders. It is unlikely that Muslims would attend social events where alcohol or pork is served, or where teenagers, male and female, mix freely. These facts need to be taken into account if an interfaith event or social occasion is being organised.
VISITING A MOSQUE OR CHURCH: When visiting the place of worship of the other faith, whether as a group or as an individual, it is best to arrange the visit in advance with the Imam or the Priest/Minister in charge.
In the mosque women are expected to wear a scarf or some head covering and to wear loose, non-revealing clothing that cover the arms and legs. Everyone is required to remove their shoes before entering the main prayer room of the mosque. A mosque will have separate prayer areas for men and women. Christian tradition also expects women to dress modestly in Church. Women may wear a head covering in Church if they so wish, while it is generally accepted that men do not. If however, an Imam was visiting a Church, his traditional headwear would be acceptable. Shoes are not removed.
A non-Muslim present in a Mosque during the Salat Prayer (i.e. the formal prayer that Muslims perform five times each day) should stand respectfully behind or to one side while the prayer is going on. For a Muslim attending a Christian service sitting or standing respectfully is acceptable.
RELIGIOUS HOLIDAYS AND OCCASIONS:
CHRISTIAN: Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas are the major Christian Feasts. Individual Saints also have particular days when they are remembered. For example, in Ireland, St Patrick’s Day, the 17th of March, is marked both as a feast day and a national holiday. Many Christians also mark the period of Lent, the forty days before Easter, as a time of reflection, fasting and for turning to God. Unlike the specific requirements of Ramadan, the activities of Christians during Lent are a matter of personal choice.
MUSLIM: During the month of Ramadan, the month of the first revelation of the Quran, Muslims fast for 30 days during daylight hours. This concludes with Eid-al-Fitr – the celebration of the breaking of the fast. Eid -al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice recalling Ibrahim’s/Abraham ‘s sacrifice of his son Ishmael, takes place at the end of the annual Hajj Pilgrimage. Milad -un-Nabi (the Prophet’s birthday) is also celebrated by some Muslims.
Note: The Islamic Calendar is lunar, and the year is shorter than the Solar Gregorian Calendar used in the western world. Therefore, according to the solar calendar, Muslim feasts occur about eleven days earlier each year.
At present, many people are simply unaware of the need for interreligious dialogue. Some are not interested while others actively oppose interfaith cooperation. These facts should not stop our efforts to build interaction and understanding between Christians and Muslims.
In Ireland, the multi-religious and multicultural nature of our society is still a relatively new experience. Therefore, for many, the need to make an effort in order to insure that we live together in peace and justice has not yet been fully realised. As people of faith and as people who wish to build social harmony and justice, we have a role to both raise awareness of this need and to actively respond to it. There are people who will listen and who do appreciate the need for mutual respect, understanding and cooperation between Christians and Muslims. We can begin with these and through them others will be convinced of the need for openness and interfaith dialogue.
To move on to Chapter 6 – Resources click here