In February, at the University College Cork Law Society, I learned a lot when I debated on Islam and the West against Dr Azzam Tamimi, a British citizen operating in London as Hamas's apologist. There are no religious societies permitted in Cork (although bizarrely, there is an Atheist Society), but there is a Muslim Cultural Society (which had just hosted Islam Awareness Week) and about half the audience were Muslims, mostly from the medical school. The long row of young women wore dark, drab hijabs and jilbabs. Having given a poor speech with anti-Semitic undertones about how Islam had come into being to liberate the oppressed, he became red-faced with incredulity when I explained to the audience what he and his hero stood for: suicide bombings, destruction of Israel, worldwide Caliphate, imposition of sharia and so on. He was in such a sulk that he refused his right of reply and later, during questions, announced that he was upset and his feelings were hurt by all the terrible lies I had told about him and his hero, Qaradawi, the Nelson Mandela of Islam. When I suggested he should grow up and learn to engage in robust debate, shared with the audience his having said on an Arabic TV programme that anyone not wanting the Caliphate should live on the planet of the apes, and reminded him that taqiyya (a dispensation to lie) was a part of his religion, Tamimi lost his cool sufficiently to shout: "Yes. So what, I want a Caliphate," and raved about the Zionists stealing his house.
I learned three important points from this debate. First, outside his comfort zone Tamimi is easy meat — an intellectually tenth-rate, one-trick pony. Second, the Muslim students seemed completely unmoved by the revelations about him and were all on message. One girl spoke, crying as she told us movingly of the beauty of sharia as a way of life: she was a moderate, she explained, so wanted sharia in Ireland only for Muslims. Tamimi is a celeb who was mobbed afterwards (girls hanging back giggling until the end, of course) by Muslims wanting to be photographed with him. Third, the non-Muslim students were stifled by a terror of causing offence by criticising Islam in any way: one even castigated himself for having been shocked by the sharia approval of wife-beating until a Muslim girl had explained to him why she had no problem with it. I had lost the debate, of course, but afterwards, in the bar, several of the young were pleasingly appalled by what they had learned.
Historically, the colleges of the National University of Ireland did not allow the study of religion, but in 2007 University College Cork opened a Department of the Study of Religions, which is now carrying out a government-funded research project on Muslims in Ireland. Launched by the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, a local MP whose espousing of the cause of Gaza is popular in a country where Israel is seen as an oppressor, it is being conducted by graduates of the London School of African and Oriental Studies. One is an expert on Japanese Buddhism, another on Turkish orthodoxy and a third — who is married to a Palestinian — on Bahai and reform movements in Islam. None has any competence in the Irish context. There is no independent think-tank in Ireland devoted to the study of Islam — although Dialogue Ireland, a modestly-funded trust which has battled Christian cultism and achieved considerable success against Scientology, is now turning its attention to Islamism.
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