For Muslim Community Leader in Ireland, Hate Crime Remains an Urgent Concern

DUBLIN – Summayah Kenna has headed the public relations department of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, or ICCI, for over 20 years. From 1980 until 1991, she lived under Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship in Benghazi, Libya, volunteering as a social worker while raising three children. In the late 1970s, she converted to Islam in secret and married her Libyan husband.
Before that, she was born and raised as an Irish Catholic in the outskirts of Dublin.
In a country where Christians account for over 82 percent of the population, Kenna’s pale skin, bright blue eyes and hijab are highly unusual.  Yet according to her, adapting and living within that situation is typically pleasant.
“For the most part in my experience, the Irish are kind, friendly, respectful people,” Kenna said in an interview at the ICCI.
For most of its modern history, Ireland suffered mass emigration due to famine, poor economic growth and political instability. With the implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement however, the Northern Irish conflict settled and the economy began to flourish. By the early 2000s, the country began experiencing net immigration for the first time.
According to Irish census data in 1991, the year Kenna and her family returned to Dublin, the total Muslim population on the island was under 4,000 people. By the time of the census in 2016, that number had risen to more than 63,000.
Yet for Kenna, despite government efforts to make this social transition a smooth one, Irish sentiments on racism and hate crime still have a long way to go. The European Network Against Racism (ENAR) says reports of hate crime in Ireland have increased every year since at least 2013.
“We have plenty of organizations and people that do good work, but is the reality of tolerance in Ireland where it should be? No, absolutely not,” Kenna said.
Lack of legislation
Several years ago, as Kenna was driving along the M1 motorway into Dublin with some of her children in the back seat, she noticed a sedan inching closer and closer to her left side. Before long, the occupants of both cars could see each other clearly. There were three young men in one and three women with hijabs in the other.
Then the sedan attempted to ram her off the road.
“They didn’t hit us hard, but it was clear that they were trying to push us into the rail and over the side.” Kenna said. “Fortunately I was able to keep control and they stopped. But they quickly drove up ahead and all stuck their fingers out the windows.”
Although Kenna reported the attack to the Irish police force, An Garda Síochána (or Gardaí for short), no arrests were made nor charges filed. But even if had been, the likelihood that any of the suspects would be convicted on hate crime charges is low.

Summayah Kenna. Photo by Nick Trombola

Despite Ireland’s history as one of only colonized states in Europe, it remains one of the only members of the EU that does not have specific hate crime legislation. This means that perpetrators do not receive additional charges for hate-motivated crimes because there is nothing explicitly differentiating hate offenses from common assaults.
In 1989, the Irish parliament did pass the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, making it an offence to commit actions or distribute material that could “stir up hatred” in others.
However, organizations like the ICCI and ENAR argue that this provision is inadequate. They say it is only designed to address hate speech, and even then, there is no naming of the offense on permanent records.
In addition, only 5 people have been convicted under the Act in 28 years.
“One of the most shocking experiences of her life”
About two years ago, one of Kenna’s daughters was walking with a friend near the entrance to Trinity College in central Dublin, where she’s a dental student. Despite the large crowds and tour groups passing beside them, the two were abruptly confronted by a middle-aged woman and her boyfriend. Unprovoked, the woman started hurling insults and slurs at the two girls.
While Kenna’s daughter wanted to retaliate, they instead walked on and attempted to ignore them. But rather than letting them off, the woman’s boyfriend ripped off their hijabs and tried to hit them.
“The people around them seemed appalled, but no one even attempted to stop them until a shopkeeper ran out of his store to my daughter’s defense.” Kenna said. “She told me that it was one of the most shocking experiences of her life.”
Though she didn’t expect anything to be done, Kenna’s daughter reported the incident to police. Yet even that’s a step most victims decide not to take.
Due to the perceived lack of sufficient justice for hate crimes, along with issues of trust in policing, ENAR claims that the amount of hate-related incidents reported to police is unrealistically low.
In one of its quarterly reviews on racism in Ireland last year, ENAR received 330 separate reports of racist incidents from January to June 2017 through its online iReport system. Police only received 30 percent of those complaints within the same timeframe.
“It is not clear to the public how to report racist incidents,” the report said, “and insufficient information about the process, including diversion during reporting for unexplained reasons to other offices or Ethnic Liaison Officers deters even those who are initially motivated to report.”
In a statement to in 2014, the Irish police force, An Garda Síochána, acknowledged the difficulties in reporting sensitive incidents. But it also noted the work of a special unit devoted to such issues and urged “anyone who has been a victim of a racist crime to inform us so that it can be thoroughly investigated.”
Yet Kenna believes that despite good intentions, little has been done to curb the increase of hate-related incidents since then.
“There is plenty of potential for change. The [Garda Racial, Intercultural & Diversity Office] does great internal work; if I have an issue with a particular Garda, they at least attempt to educate him and remedy the situation.” Kenna said. “But I see very limited effectiveness on the streets. They just don’t go into the communities and really listen to the people who have been affected by these horrible crimes.”
An uncertain future
As Ireland’s minority populations continue to grow every year, and with nearly 20,000 refugees crossing the Mediterranean in 2018 alone, Kenna thinks the need for robust hate crime legislation in Ireland will only become more urgent.
Many advocacy groups, including the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, are attempting to expedite that process. In March 2017, a coalition of rights associations, representing racial minorities, LGBTQ groups and people with disabilities, came together as the “National Steering Group Against Hate Crime” to lobby for reform.

The Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland. Photo by Nick Trombola

Meanwhile, organizations like ENAR have committed to helping create new legislation. In 2015, the University of Limerick’s Hate and Hostility Research Group introduced the Criminal Law (Hate Crime) Bill to Parliament, which would effectively remove the ambiguity in the Prohibition to Incitement of Racial Hatred Act.
The Irish government however has thus far failed to take steps to formally introduce the bill.
Now with Brexit threatening a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland next year, which would likely make travel between the UK and Ireland far more difficult for migrants, the fight for new hate crime legislation on the island will likely contribute to the future of race relations in Western Europe.
Yet Kenna believes that while hate crime in Ireland remains a significantly underreported problem, advocacy and discourse are still the most effective ways to foster real positive change.
“There will always be problems with those resistant to change,” Kenna said, “but I believe that as Ireland becomes more diverse, openness and dialogue will come along with it.”