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Lecturer Profile: Dr Amanullah de Sondy

Dr Amanullah de Sondy is a senior lecturer of Contemporary Islam at UCC, and has an extensive career as a writer, speaker and activist in public understanding of Islam. His first book, The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities, was published by Bloomsbury Press in 2014. Originally hailing from Glasgow, Dr de Sondy arrived at UCC in 2015, where his research now specialises in the connections between Islam and gender, race, ethnicity, and pluralism. 

Dr de Sondy was recently awarded the ‘Narratives of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ grant by UCC’s Equality Unit, and is set to hold a photographic exhibition on the topic of Islamophobia and at UCC for Equality Week 2020. I met Dr de Sondy to ask him about his upcoming exhibition, and on the Irish context that drove him to curate it. 

EMPHASISED QUOTE – It’s not taking away from free speech…. It’s not about shutting them down. It’s about countering that hate

I wanted to ask you about your exhibition, and on the general topic of Islam and Islamophpbia in Cork and Ireland. 

This is really coming from the equalities committee. They put a call out for grants, and I’ve been thinking about this ever since I’ve been in Ireland, in 2015. The lack of discussion on Islamophobia, and the lack of discussion on race and racism… And any kind of discussion we have on racism becomes very defensive, to the extent that it becomes a battle of competing claims; that we, the Irish, can’t be racist or Islamophobic because we’ve had such a tumultuous history. Now, nobody’s taking that away, but that doesn’t mean that you completely dismiss the reality. The reality is that in Europe, and here in Ireland, there is a rise of anti-Muslim hate— if you want to call it Islamophobia. There is a rise in hate crimes, there’s a rise in very racist, right-wing white supremacist politics, that needs to be countered. Thinking about that context, I thought it would be a good idea to propose a visual display of Muslims of UCC.

It’s not about profiling. It’s not about, ‘Oh, look at this Muslim woman, look at this Muslim guy.’ I don’t want it to be that. I want it to be Muslims taking control of the narrative; taking control of how they combat Islamophobia, how they combat everyday microaggressions. Racists and Islamophobes are a lot more sophisticated. They have very covert ways of attacking and of abusing individuals. Now, someone might turn around and say, ‘Why are Muslims being highlighted here at UCC?’ Well, because they are one set of minorities who are affected. But my emphasis has always been that all our social injustices are connected; if we call out Islamophobia, we must do it in the same breath as calling out other prejudices, such as homophobia and misogyny. All of these injustices are connected. My interest is because I’m here teaching Contemporary Islam, as an academic, as a Muslim myself, is that maybe we could all learn something from having, from listening and seeing Muslims in and around UCC Campus to highlight some of these equalities. I think we are moving at a very fast pace here at UCC, in terms of our diversity, equality and inclusions strategies. That’s something very positive. But we can’t be complacent. There will be individuals who want to draw us back to the burning of bridges, and that, we always have to be ready to counter. I want this to be a way for us to move forward.

So this is almost about proving to people who say there is no racism in Ireland, this is a welcoming place, that we can’t be oppressive, by showing these real experiences… 

It’s… I hope it’s not an exhibition about proving people wrong or proving people right. It’s about being empathetic, about being more aware of the privileges that some of us have that we don’t appreciate. What it means for a Muslims woman to walk down Western Road…How must that feel in a time where a lot of people are very verbal and are attacking Muslim women, because Muslim women are easy targets? It’s about just appreciating that a little bit more. It’s not about saying, ‘You said that Islamophobia doesn’t exist. You said that Ireland is not racist. You’re proven wrong.’ If we start going down that road, no-one’s going to win. What we need is to come together. We need to stand shoulder to shoulder, to actually unite and discuss these things together. The more we talk about these things, the more we draw closer to each other in a human way. I think that a lot of the time we don’t do that. Last year, when the Express published an article about [levels of racism experienced by students], the immediate response was, ‘No, the way of carrying this out was wrong, this doesn’t exist’. And I just thought, we’re not really going to get very far if you’re continually trying to say that everything is hunky dory, it’s all grand here lads. It’s not. It’s easy for a white, privileged person to say that, but for your average marginalised person, for individuals who are visibly different, it’s not. Especially when they don’t have any power. I get to say what I say because I’m a senior lecturer here; people think twice before they respond to me, because they know that the university protects me and all that. But I worry about your average Muslim student on campus, or your black student… Again, all these injustices are linked. The more we visually see that difference, I think some way it will help to break down these inequalities.

So it’s a more empathetic view; this is your community, this is what’s happening. 

It’s about raising this idea that we’re all in it together. We have to all be in it together. As soon as you fall trap to this ‘us and them’ mentality, we’ve all lost. But in order to break that, we also can’t continually throw out this narrative that everything’s grand. We seem to be at a [time] where that’s what I’m hearing. I saw an article in the Irish Examiner that showed all these wonderful things that all the Irish people are doing to combat racism, but the response to it on Twitter was, ‘That’s really nice, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that there is actually racism’. I think what we need is a more pragmatic, a more realistic approach where we are able to combat that. It’s not taking away from free speech, people can say whatever they want. They can be racist, they can be Islamophobes. It’s not about shutting them down. It’s about countering that hate. I hope that in some way we are on the same page when it comes to countering hate.

On the general topic of Islamophobia in Ireland, I know that you’ve had experience with that. A couple of months ago, you received a phone call from someone threatening you, and as you say, you are one of the more privileged people. 

That’s one of the reasons why I want this visual display to be a success, because if I’m getting that abuse, being in such a privileged position, with all the great platforms I get… What kind of abuse is your average Muslim getting? What is happening to your average Muslim? So this exhibition will be about, hopefully, getting Muslims to come forward, and empowering their narrative. Empowering their voices, so it’s about passing the microphone to those without those platforms. I want to empower Muslims by doing this; I don’t want this to be, ‘Oh, look at this woman who’s got a headscarf on, she’s at UCC!’ I hope it doesn’t become that. I was thinking one way of doing that would be getting the Muslims we want to showcase to take a selfie. When you take a selfie, you’re actually in control of that. The library is actually in talks with me, they’ve said that they’d be quite happy to display this…It’s little things. Really, if there’s anything I can say to you, it’s small things that draw us closer. If we begin to see that we’re not that different, when it comes to real issues with we’re all dealing with… We do have to appreciate all of the cultural and religious trajectories that we’ve all come from.

So it’s like… this is us, these are our students and our peers, who might have an experience that’s different to mine, as everyone has different experiences.

I hope it will be both heartwarming, but also critical. Make us a little bit agitated! Because real change in society often comes when you agitate people. Good educators here at UCC will agitate their students so that they will be thinking about issues, and they learn from that. I hope that by seeing this visual display of Muslims around UCC, we move forward and move closer to one another.

It sounds like the exhibition is kind of in a planning stage, and you’re waiting for people to come forward so you can plan it together with them. 

It will be to get the best possible way of putting an exhibition together that will empower.

So it’s almost a community-led approach you’re taking to the exhibition, where you’re looking to work with people and see what they want to present. 

We’ll be quite limited, but… It’ll be their narrative. It’ll be maybe a few lines about themselves, how they combat things, if they experience any Islamophobia. So it becomes a kind of educational tool where we can learn from these varied people. I would curate it, so that we remain focused on what we’re trying to achieve; Muslims of UCC and how they combat everyday Islamophobia.

So, you’re aiming for Equality Week, although the date and time is still up in the air? 

Yes, although it’s most likely looking like the library.

You mentioned that there’s been very much a rise in Islamophobia, hate crime and White supremacy, and that’s been progressing very rapidly in Ireland. What direction would you say that’s going in, in the country and in UCC? 

What’s happening in the country politically is only just starting. We’re seeing a rise in people coming out with very racist vitriol. The recent Fine Gael member from Waterford who said that we need to de-program some of our immigrants because they might have some inclination towards ISIS…That’s Islamophobic. Then the next day you have ‘Oh I’m very sorry, I shouldn’t have said that’. That tells a lot. It’s very worrying. That’s happening outside, but in UCC, we’re doing amazingly well! When I came here in 2015, I walked in and thought I wanted to walk out, because I thought, ‘This campus is so white!’. I came here from Miami, which was a very different experience for me. But I’ve seen a rapid change. Our student demographic has changed. There are so many more minorities that you visibly see. At college level, at senior management level, there is a deep concern about how to make this better.

I think you can’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but if you read the news and some of the comments accusing immigrants about where they’re sending their money… All of these things hype up a tension, a great fuel to fire this sentiment of racism. All these hateful characters now connect through social media, that’s very worrying.

Assuming that there are Muslim students reading this who would like to get involved, what would you advise? 

I would say to get in touch with me, send me an email and we can have a discussion. All ideas will be welcome, but it’ll have to be visual. That’s the stipulation of the grant.

This is interesting because it’s less an art exhibition and more of an outreach project.

Art can be understood in many different ways. I’m kind of overwhelmed by the positive response I’ve had after receiving this grant. People have said they’re wanting to help out, and international students have showed greater enthusiasm.

Dr de Sondy can be contacted at amanullah.desondy@ucc.ie. The exhibition is set to run in Spring 2020.