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

By Jochen Bölsche

The planned construction of over 180 mosques in Germany is mobilizing right-wing xenophobes but also an increasing number of leftist critics. They fear the Muslim places of worship will facilitate the establishment of a completely parallel society.

Responding to public pressure, architects reduced the size of a controversial mega-mosque planned for the city of Cologne.
AP

Responding to public pressure, architects reduced the size of a controversial mega-mosque planned for the city of Cologne.

The issue at hand wasn't the construction of a missile base or a new nuclear power plant. Yet the media reported "turmoil" and an "enraged" audience in a school auditorium in Ehrenfeld, a district of the German city of Cologne. The mood was almost comparable to that of the protest gatherings once held against nuclear missiles or reactors.

Instead the outrage was directed at a huge mosque planned for the area. Still, the words used by the project's opponents called to mind the protests of earlier times. "The minarets even look like missiles," railed one woman. A man said the mosque's dome reminded him "of a nuclear plant."

Ill will over mosques like the one being built in Cologne is spreading rapidly throughout Germany, often to the surprise of local politicians. For a long time the establishment of Muslim prayer rooms provoked little protest, housed as they were mostly in residential buildings, shops and back courtyards. Recently, though, there has been an increasing number of acts of protest, some violent. Molotov cocktails were thrown through mosque windows in the Bavarian town of Lauingen; Christians set protest crosses inscribed with "Terra christiana est," or this is Christian land, on the grounds of a mosque in Hanover; and construction trailers went up in flames in the Berlin district of Pankow.

The anti-Islam protest movement has also begun to spill over into city politics. In Cologne, for example, the extreme right anti-mosque initiative Pro Cologne captured five local government seats in recent elections. Now the group is aspiring to enter the national scene as Pro Germany, together with other like-minded organizations, some from the far-right fringe. Their approach follows the example of populist Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, whose anti-immigration party garnered a surprising degree of support before he was murdered in 2002.

In Germany there is also a market for these "single-issue parties," suggests trend researcher Adjiedj Bakas, who himself emigrated from Surinam to the Netherlands. In the populous Ruhr Valley region of western Germany the Voter Initiative Recklinghausen (whose acronym "WIR" is the German word for "we") has found resonance with its message. The group claims it is fighting against "creeping Islamization," and is allied in the local government with the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), one of Germany's major political parties. WIR members say they aren't alone in their opposition to Islam and their concern "that in 20 years in Recklinghausen, as in all large German cities, the majority of the residents under the age of 40 will be Muslims." "Discomfort is already spreading in some parts of the city," says Georg Schliehe, a WIR representative on the local city council, "but policy, public authorities and scholars downplay the problem."

This burgeoning sentiment against mosques has no doubt been strengthened by the Islamist murders and suicide attacks that have also afflicted European cities in recent years. Some Muslims like Imran Sagir, director of a property development company specializing in mosques, say they can understand German citizens' fears. When you hear on the news about crimes committed in the name of Islam," he says, "who can blame people who don't want a mosque in the neighborhood?"

Wolfgang Huber, the head of Germany's Protestant Church and bishop for the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, names what he sees as one important cause for the increasing unease. He says there is an "obviously large-scale initiative" on the part of Islamic organizations to show their presence in as high-profile a way as possible and in as many places as possible. No fewer than 184 new mosques, some with domes and minarets, are currently being built or planned throughout Germany. That's considerably more than the 163 existing traditional mosques (along with around 2,600 prayer rooms mostly hidden within secular buildings).

And that appears to be only the start of an expected wider European mosque-building boom. One organization alone -- Ahmadiyya, a movement seen as an outsider community within Islam that the respected German weekly Die Zeit described as "something like the Jehovah's Witnesses among Muslims" -- has introduced a "100 mosque plan" for Germany. Currently 25 percent of these projects have been completed.

More often than in the past, Muslim communities nowadays are trying to include Middle Eastern style minarets in their building projects. It's an addition that is rousing greater protest -- no matter where the mosque is getting built in Germany. "As soon as the foreignness is cemented in a structure like a mosque, the problems just multiply," says Christoph Dahling-Sander, the Protestant church's representative in the city of Hanover for matters concerning Islam.

There have been some notable exceptions, though. Residents in the far northern town of Rendsburg in the state of Schleswig-Holstein kept their famous northern German composure and a majority accepted the construction of a large mosque. But as a rule, when building plans for mosques become public, neighbors immediately mobilize with a laundry list of concerns about why they will be bad for the neighborhood. They fear parking shortages, plunging property values and noise pollution. Hoping to maintain a veneer of political correctness, local politicians with the traditional parties play down these concerns. But by doing so, they just create even greater opportunity for grassroots groups like the citizens' movement Pro Germany.

"Where this kind of gaudy Middle Eastern building goes up, with a dome and minarets, the next thing will be an application to the authorities for permission to do the call to prayer," a passage on the Pro Germany Web site reads. It's visions like this that are leading more and more Germans to see the construction of mosques as the expression of a "kind of land grab," observes Claus Leggewie, a political science professor at the University of Giessen in the western state of Hesse.

This impression is aggravated not only by right-wing agitators but also, according to Leggewie, by careless or sometimes even deliberately provocative statements by Muslim builders. Many seem to think like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In words spoken in 1997, Erdogan made mosque construction seem like part of a strategy of Islamization: "The minarets are our lances, the domes our helmets, the believers our army."

The names of some of the newly built mosques aren't exaclty in harmony with the reassuring "Islam is peace" slogan. Religious scholar Ursula Spuler-Stegemann at Germany's University of Marburg, among others, criticizes the fact that mosques are named after warlords like Fatih Sultan Mehmet, conqueror of Constantinople. "That can only be an agenda," she believes. "These Muslims don't just want to show their presence here, but also to strengthen and expand it."

Statements made by intellectuals like Spuler-Stegemann, who has also said that, "Islam has a problem with violence," underscore the fact that criticism of mosque construction is no longer exclusively the domain of mindless xenophobes. And it would be a mistake, offical representatives on immigration issues from Germany's states warned a recent joint convention, to sweepingly dismiss mosque critics as being right-wing extremists.

In the case of the controversy over the mosque planned for Cologne's Ehrenfeld neighborhood, the right-wing Pro protesters have indeed been pushed into the margins. Their complaints have been drowned out by more high-profile statements coming from prominent leftists and liberals including German Jewish journalist Ralph Giordano, women's rights activist Alice Schwarzer and investigative reporter Günter Wallraff, who have all spoken out against the mosque. Representatives of Germany's large churches have increasingly added their voices to the criticism as well. The "dishonest dialogue" with Islam described in SPIEGEL's pages in December 2001 -- in which church representatives simply ignored scandalous and unbearable aspects like persecution of Christians, discrimination against women, toleration of terror and "honor" killings for the sake of harmony -- is now a thing of the past.

In place of the "fairy tale that we're all 'children of Abraham'," in the words of Leggewie, the churches are now making an effort not to entangle themselves in finding contrived common ground with Islam. Instead they are trying to find areas in which they differ -- and this applies particularly to the construction of mosques.

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Graphics Gallery: Germany's Muslims by the Numbers


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