Domes and Minarets? Not in My Backyard, Say an Increasing Number of Germans

By Jochen Bölsche

Part 2: "Why Would You Build a Mosque in an Area Where Nobody Lives?"

Of course the Protestant and Catholic churches stress unanimously that Germany's more than 3 million Muslims have the same constitutional right to build houses of worship.

But agreeing to a mosque, German Protestant leader Bishop Huber said at a national church meeting in 2007, should in no way preclude the opportunity for an open and critical discussion about the location, size and number of such buildings.

Location, size, number -- at least one of these factors seems to be out of proportion in some of the 184 new mosque projects. There are plenty of examples out there.

In Berlin the local Ahmadiyya congregation, just 200 members strong, is pushing construction of a mosque at a cost of around €1 million ($1.6 million) in Berlin's suburban Heinersdorf district, which is home to a paucity of Muslims. Feeling left out of the process by local politicians, furious residents quickly began to gather at numerous, often overflowing and sometimes tumultuous protest meetings. "No to the mosque" or, as in the time around the fall of the Berlin Wall in this former East German district, "We are the people." They demanded that their quiet neighborhood not be allowed to be transformed into a "second Kreuzberg," a reference to a downtown Berlin neighborhood known for its massive Turkish immigrant population. "Why?" one of the speakers asked, drawing applause, "Why would you build a mosque in an area where no Muslims live?"

Meanwhile, in populous Cologne in western Germany, the locally based Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) -- which has close ties to a sister institution in Ankara -- has plans to build what it is describing as "Europe's biggest mosque." The construction is designed for thousands of visitors and slated for Ehrenfeld, an overburdened neighborhood that already suffers from a serious parking shortage. It's not just the mosque's location that has local residents seething, though, it's also its gigantic scale. Once built, the mosque will have a surface of 22,000 square meters (236,800 square feet) and 55-meter minarets standing as tall as an 18-story office tower. The enormous Ottoman style building, pronounces author Dieter Wellershoff, is as strange for some residents as it would be "if it were some object that suddenly landed there from another planet."

And in Frankfurt's village-like Hause district, already home to two mosques, a 300-member association wants to erect the third Muslim community center in a 400-meter radius at a cost of €3 million. Local residents are afraid the concentration of mosques might cause their area to "tip." A typical statement made by local residents at protest meetings goes like this: "It wouldn't feel like home anymore if more come here."

The resentment fomenting amongst the mosque's opponents, who have already collected well over 1,000 signatures, was further fueled when the local Green Party's spokesperson on integration policies, Nargess Eskandari-Grünberg, pointed out that 40 percent of the city's population are immigrants. "If that doesn't suit you," she said, "then you need to move somewhere else."

Local mosque critics did manage to find support from the Protestant Church, whose leader in the local state of Hesse dismissed the Green Party politician's statement as "tasteless." Although state church leader Peter Steinacker says he has no personal objections to the construction project, he says the issue of whether a third mosque should be built in an area like Hausen is a "question of political prudence."

These conflicts often come to a head following the same pattern. Persuaded by the argument that Germany's constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion requires them to authorize any proposed mosque, city administrators are often keen to come to an arrangement with builders early and behind closed doors, coming to comprehensive agreements.

But with this strategy, which political scientist Leggewie describes as "paternalistic," local governments tend to make "the mosque association's demands their own" and to inform the public of "too little, too late." And because the Muslim communities "often don't display the necessary openness" when residents find out about the sometimes enormous projects, they feel they're being presented with a done deal and taken for fools.

Often it is only then, when the local conflict is taking on traits of a clash of civilizations, that the fundamental questions avoided by city planners at the beginning of the process are discussed. They include, for example, topics such as how the organization behind the project deals with issues like terrorism and women's rights, whether the project is aimed at integration or separation and whether plans that go to architectural extremes are really covered by the constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion.

And it is often in this phase that local media and local politicians raise the issue of how the planned mega-mosques differ from Christian or Jewish holy buildings. "Whether a mosque can even be called a house of worship at all," says Middle East scholar Spuler-Stegemann, "is contested even within Islam."

In Islam expert Leggewie's opinion, mosques are "definitely not churches." He says they can be better described as multipurpose buildings. In the same way, Islam itself is "not just a religion," emphasizes Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a Green Party politician and long-term representative for multicultural affairs in Frankfurt. It is "also a theocratic vision," in which politics and belief are inseparably bound and "democracy and human rights are subordinate and conditional values." Islamic associations are not officially recognized religious communities, points out Necla Kelek, a Germany-based sociologist and feminist of Turkish descent. Granting building permits for mosques, she says, is "not a question of freedom of religion but a political question." She says Germany's laws governing construction and associations are ill-equipped for dealing with the issue.

The great dissimilarity between these mosque centers and churches is evident in the original plans for the Cologne mosque, in which only one-fifth of the 22,000 square meters was set aside as an area for prayer. The remaining space, according to a Turkish-language appeal for donations, was intended for a TV studio, pharmacy, doctor's office, legal practice, bakery, hairdresser, supermarket, bank, preschool, library, restaurant and jewelry store. The mosque's size was only later reduced as a result of public protest.

Large mosques like the one in Cologne often offer even more: Koran schools and kickboxing studios, computer and TV rooms, travel agencies and funeral homes -- all services provided under one roof or in the immediate vicinity. "It's everything a Muslim needs outside the apartment," claims Kelek, "If he wants to, in addition to praying, it also allows him to have nothing to do with Germany society." She describes the mosques as "breeding grounds" for a parallel society and an "obstacle to integration."

Under the pretext of religious privilege, the DITIB strategists in Cologne have in truth claimed the rights to a commercial center that also happens to include the opportunity to pray. A Muslim community in Berlin's Neukölln district also wanted to take its cue from Cologne and construct an immense commercial and cultural center. But at least the planners there, as the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recognized, only described the structure as being a "semi-mosque."

That plan, however, failed in the face of the strong opposition of Deputy Mayor and District Councilwoman Stefanie Vogelsang of the conservative Christian Democrats. Her awareness of the issue had been heightened by a conflict with DITIB a few years earlier, when the organization deliberately violated its building permits during the construction of a new mosque in the same neighborhood.

By the time construction had been completed, the mosque's two minarets rose 37 meters into the Berlin skyline rather than the approved 28 meters and the dome measured around 22 meters instead of the permitted 18. For Vogelsang that was cause enough to slap the Muslim congregation with the highest fine ever imposed in her district, €100,000. "Whoever lives here, whoever builds here, needs to follow our laws," she said.

The local Berliner Kurier newspaper praised her as the "councilwoman who doesn't let people walk all over her," but the Muslim community had a totally different opinion. It would have been perfectly fine if the illegally erected minarets had been "a little bit bigger," a reporter overheard in the mosque. Another congregation member complained that "every mosque in Turkey" is bigger. "They must be laughing themselves silly at us," he grumbled.

Reactions like that reinforce the impression on the part of critics like Spuler-Stegemann that for some building associations mosque construction is, more than anything, a show of power and an effort to establish Muslim enclaves. "Where you can hear the call of the minaret," she says, "from a certain Muslim perspective, that's Islamic ground."


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