Pakistani Muslims and Irish Identity: Belonging and Fluidity in a Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland

When you think of Irish identity, what comes to your mind? This question, which I posed to young second-generation Pakistani Muslim men while carrying out my doctoral research in the Department of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin, has no simple answer. Any analysis of the essence of Irish identity, however, must consider the impact of the Celtic Tiger economic boom, which inaugurated an extraordinary process of religious and ethnic diversification within what has long been considered an overwhelmingly white, agrarian, and Catholic society. This piece, which stems from an article I published recently in the academic journal Sociology, contributes to the discussion of how young Pakistani Muslim men living in Dublin relate to and define Irish identity in a post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. 

“What, then, do members of the Irish nation have in common, and how do young second-generation Pakistani Muslim men relate to Irishness in light of the nation’s historic connection to Celticity and Catholicism?”

Before considering the semi-structured interview data, let us first examine the nature of contemporary Irishness. Irish identity, which I use interchangeably with Irishness, is a multilayered concept that is ingrained in colonial and post-colonial narratives and struggles of Irish independence; it is also an increasingly multidimensional site of contestation and struggle. The rise of the Celtic Tiger – and the cultural revolution that followed – imported to Ireland several key movements including the turn to secularization, the arrival of new migrants from around the world, and of course globalization. Yet, in light of these transformations, Irishness is still treated as a kind of collective identity shaped by formal and informal “rules” that define national group membership. What, then, do members of the Irish nation have in common, and how do young second-generation Pakistani Muslim men relate to Irishness in light of the nation’s historic connection to Celticity and Catholicism?

 What Being Irish Means

The increasing cultural, religious, and racial diversity of Ireland today necessitates a discussion on the meaning of Irish identity. Some Irish people understand Irish identity through a certain cultural orientation that reveals itself in relation to “the Other.” Irish culture, in this context, refers to cultural elements such as drinking alcohol, traditional Irish music, Catholic traditions, and knowledge of Irish history. The cultural component of Irishness defines “Irish” as those individuals whose lifestyle choices and habits are considered by the majority white population as being “typically Irish.” Ali, a 33-year-old second-generation businessman and a Sunni Muslim, identified himself as Irish based solely on his personal preferences in terms of culture. He described his family in the following manner:

We’ve all become sort of more western because … it’s all about Ireland and what’s going on here … We’ve lost Pakistani culture and identity … We’ve integrated into society, into the culture here … So it’s like we’re Irish … We speak Gaelic … Even my kids … they have to speak Irish … I [can] speak fluently … I can read Irish, no problem … I consider myself fully Irish.

Ali’s views caught me off guard. Prior to entering the fieldwork in Dublin, I had never imagined a person of Pakistani descent being fluent in the Irish language. My bias is due largely to the deliberate construction – of which I had unfortunately fallen victim –  of Irish identity’s links to Celtic ancestry, and more specifically whiteness. This exclusive meaning of Irishness is echoed in cultural myths of an ancient “Irish race” as well as a type of moral and Catholic purity. Defining Irish identity on the basis of rigid cultural orientations or religious affiliations is now being challenged by interculturalism and the emergence of communities such as Pakistanis.

“Babar preferred to live in an Irish nation that places more emphasis on morality derived from religion, even though he did not directly advocate for ‘more Islam.'”

Ali’s cultural orientation towards things “Irish,” however, did not come up regularly in the interviews. In contrast, Akbar, a 25-year-old second-generation family businessman and Sufi Muslim, stated that he used to be Irish. He based this categorization on his “former life” which incorporated open sexual relationships, drinking alcohol, and listening to hip hop. Akbar further distanced himself from Irish identity when he stated: “A time came when I did not see this culture … the lifestyle here … [as] progressing. It’s very confusing, it’s not progressive.” Ali and several other respondents claimed that secularization – which they associated with “loosening morals” – is damaging Irish society. Babar (a 32-year-old Sunni), for example, preferred an “old Irishness” rooted in modesty and conservative Catholic values. He criticized the “openness” of the Celtic Tiger as “the worst fucking thing ever,” and he made a direct connection between secularization and the perceived degradation of Irish culture. He was particularly critical of the “exploitation of women’s’ bodies” through marketing, which he described as “un-Islamic.” Babar preferred to live in an Irish nation that places more emphasis on morality derived from religion, even though he did not directly advocate for “more Islam.” Both he and Ali complained that religion no longer plays a dominant role in shaping the Irish nation. Indeed, towards the twilight of the Celtic Tiger, Ireland became secularized to the point where the Church started importing priests from other parts of the world to service the dwindling number of “practicing Catholics.” The Irish people – in 2015 – also became the first national group to introduce gay marriage by a popular vote. The “Yes” victory suggests that the Church’s leadership has been paralyzed to stem the tide of “progressive changes,” undermined by its own clerical abuse scandals and cover-ups by those in authority.

The rapidity of secularization during the Celtic Tiger carried important implications for the Irish nation. Several young Pakistani Muslim men felt that they were connected to Ireland not through religion, but through citizenship rights. These participants viewed Ireland as a civic nation based on democratic institutions, protection of individual rights, and a belief in the rule of law. To these Pakistani Muslims, Irish identity is inclusive: in principle, any person can belong to Ireland as long as he or she accepts egalitarian values. Participants such as Harris, a 35-year-old businessman and a Sunni, mentioned that the civic nation is the preferred orientation of Irish identity:

This is my home, like my parents were born in Pakistan … but this is my home! I count this as my home because I don’t know any better. You know? I’m Irish! Irish passport! If I want to go to Pakistan, I have to get a visa! … I’ve been living here my whole life … That’s the real Irish!

Birthplace and citizenship rights are paramount in Harris’ understanding of Irishness. In this sense, he is a member of a political community that is guided by constitutional principles and the rule of law, which (at least in theory) protects ethnic and religious minorities from marginalization and discrimination. Harris’ reference to the “real Irish” as people born and raised in Ireland counters popular arguments among critics who associate whiteness and Celtic ancestry as core features of Irish identity.

“To these Pakistani Muslims, Irish identity is inclusive: in principle, any person can belong to Ireland as long as he or she accepts egalitarian values.”

As Harris and other participants noted in the interviews, a civic view of Irish identity broadens the scope of who can belong to the Irish nation. Notwithstanding, interviewees also mentioned that being an Irish citizen does not automatically grant an individual the status of “Irish.” Indeed, several respondents mentioned that being Irish has more to do with race than citizenship rights. Bilal, a 27-year-old professional and recent graduate, responded to the question, “To what extent do you feel Irish?” in the following manner:

There’s natural attributes that I can’t change. That’s something I could say, my color, my physical appearance because that will never change. And my ancestral links. These are things that can’t change me. Like this one person asked me, “How do you feel? Are you Irish totally?” and I said no. I can’t feel that … I think it’s the physical way. You can see … if you look at me, I’m not from Ireland. People will say that straight away to you. My family, my ancestors, weren’t born and raised here. I’m not Irish. Maybe in a few years I will change my accent to learn Gaelic, but I won’t be Irish at the end of the day.

The racial and ancestral components of Bilal’s interpretation of Irish identity means that he cannot simply adopt certain cultural norms or behave in an “Irish way” if he wants to be considered Irish by his peers. He positions himself as an outsider to the Irish “racial state” whereby the integration of ethnic minorities is simply not possible because the state maintains white superiority for white people.

Khalid, a 24-year-old postgraduate student, also discussed the important role that whiteness plays in conceptualizations of Irish identity. He stated that despite being an Irish citizen, he can never be Irish because of his skin color, as evident in the following passage:

Pakistanis will never be Irish, that’s the thing. That’s why I feel like I’ll never belong here because I can be Irish on paper … I can even be American on paper, but I’ll always be a Pakistani in Pakistan and belong. The Irish culture isn’t ours here. Ours is a different culture … We aren’t white.

Anwar al Medina mosque: A prayer space at Anwar al Medina mosque of the Irish Sufi Foundation in north Dublin, Ireland
© Craig Considine

Another participant, Owais (a 22-year-old student) mirrored Bilal’s interpretation of Irishness. Owais commented that white people in Ireland are very “nationalistic” and view him as an Other despite him being born and raised in Ireland. He noted that even though he “can enjoy coffee with an Irish bloke… [and] listen to Irish music,” some white Irish people will simply “look at [him] and [his] skin and think that [he] could never be Irish.” Bilal, Khalid, and Owais viewed Ireland as an ethnic nation that defines itself on the principles of blood and soil. Specifically, ancestry and whiteness are constitutive elements in their understanding of “Irishness.” This language of whiteness was linked to a certain vision of Irish identity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during which the Irish people were defined in terms of the “Celtic race,” in opposition to the “Anglo-Saxon” race of England. The use of whiteness as a part of Ireland’s “national personality” inevitably leads to an exclusive definition of the Irish nation and positions Pakistanis as eternal national outsiders.

“[Several participants] viewed Ireland as an ethnic nation that defines itself on the principles of blood and soil. Specifically, ancestry and whiteness are constitutive elements in their understanding of ‘Irishness.'”

The Fluidity of Irishness

The passages shared in this article reveal several key findings. One is that Irish identity does not have a singular definition, but that culture, citizenship, and race play a significant role in how young Pakistani Muslim men position themselves in Irish society. A second finding is that Irish identity is a modern phenomenon of a fluid and dynamic nature. In the face of this fluidity, however, “Irish culture” appeared to be the dominant narrative in the interviews. This finding is rooted in Irish history and the social construction of the Irish people constituting a homogeneous national community rooted in Celticity and Catholicism. In light of the latter theme, interviewees also criticized the national swing towards secularization. Several young Pakistani men were particularly critical of secularization and advocated for “more religion,” even if religious influence comes from Catholicism rather than Islam.

Race also came up as a recurring theme in the interviews. The interviews show that young Pakistani Muslim men in Dublin are defining themselves against a hegemonic whiteness, which forces them to grapple with Otherness and all its ramifications, including marginalization, discrimination, and racism. With that being said, participants also view the “new” Irishness as being rooted in civic national principles such as citizenship rights and cultural inclusiveness. These respondents argue that members of the Irish nation need not be ancestrally related. Recent scholarship has in fact concluded that the “Irish” are much more racially diverse than imagined by previous generations of Irish people. It is therefore wise to remember that the search for some kind of “blood origin” or “racial link” of Irish identity is as futile in Ireland as it is in other nations around the world. Moving forward, it is important that discussions on Irish identity focus on civic national principles rather than ethnicity or race. As the population of Ireland becomes ever more diverse, it is imperative that the Irish government also initiates intercultural programs that strengthen civil society. Ultimately, these programs should foster flexible definitions of Irishness.

This current moment in Irish history provides young Pakistani Muslims – and, in fact, all minority communities living in Ireland – the opportunity to shift and shape discussions surrounding the nature of Irishness. Will the Irish nation be rooted in an egalitarian vision which resonates with the “new Irish,” or will the nation be viewed (as in previous decades) through an ethnocentric prism? Perhaps the answer to this question is reflected in Céad Míle Fáilte, an old Irish saying that means, “a land of hundred thousand welcomes.” Now may be the perfect time to revisit this national slogan considering that Islamophobia appears to be rising in Ireland.

*Cover Photo: Religious tolerance march :Muslims, many of them Pakistanis, march for religious tolerance and celebrate Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in Dublin, Ireland © Craig Considine