A Way Forward through European Mosque Politics by Omar Kassab

We had learned English for quite a while already before our teacher pointed out the crucial differences between British English and American English. That was when “centre” became “center,” and “trousers” turned into “pants.”

In that particular context, our school book spoke about 1776, when thirteen American colonies declared their independence from the British Empire. Every school child (or kid) in Germany knows what happened in that year.

What they don’t know, however, is that 1776 was also the year when the ground stone for the first mosque on German ground was laid.

The idea of constructing this prime mosque goes back to the Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great, who said that “all religions are equal and good, if only the people that practice them are honest people; and if Turks wanted to live here in this country, we would build them mosques.”

That first mosque has rarely been used as an Islamic house of prayer, and – just as a footnote – the sophisticated Arabic calligraphies decorating the interior have absolutely no meaning. Still, the mosque in Schwetzingen is highly important as it was built as a statement, to symbolize the notion of enlightenment and religious tolerance.

Mosque in Schwetzingen’s Turkish Garden

Today, more than 200 years later, tourists from all over the world come and marvel at this landmark. For Muslims in Germany, the mosque in Schwetzingen’s Turkish Garden has become an object of nostalgia.

The building of mosques in Germany has seen a renaissance in the aftermath of the Second World War. The new immigrant Islamic communities started to save, buy or build, and finally pray from Germany towards Mecca. Having mushroomed all over the Republic for now around six decades, today’s number of mosques in Germany is uncountable. Due to a high level of national diversity, the mixture of languages spoken in German mosques is similarly infinite. Over the years, this has not only evoked misunderstandings and social tensions, but also political problems.

While the first mosque in Germany was built to manifest religious tolerance, every additional mosque now built seems to further amplify the fear of “the foreign” which is believed to alienate the culture and spirit of the mainstream society.

These issues are caused by a discrepancy between the Muslims’ intention and the society’s perception. Per definition, a mosque is set up as a “House of God,” a place for worship and peaceful gathering. But now they have become a symbol, no, a weapon (!) for populist campaigns. In the German city of Cologne, for instance, the Turkish community is currently building its new mosque in the suburb of Ehrenfeld. Once the construction plans were published, more than 20,000 German citizens signed a petition to stop the building of the mosque with its huge dome and the two 50 meters minarets, arguing that the new mosque would “remarkably distort the character of our home town Cologne” (Bürgerbewegung Pro Köln).

In Switzerland, using an even more hostile rhetoric, the Swiss Nationalist Party (SVP) managed to rally a majority for a national referendum in favor of a country-wide minaret ban. Interestingly, at that time, by mid-2009, not more than four minarets existed in the whole country.

SVP’s campaign in 2009 against minarets in Switzerland

In my opinion, those campaigns that appear to be shockingly “islamophobic” are not really directed towards the religion Islam itself, but towards the culture and tradition that Muslim immigrants have literally “imported” from their home countries. As the aforementioned campaigns show, not everyone in “the West” is prepared for Islamic architecture in a Christian dominated environment. And that needs to be respected.

Three Guidelines

I identify three guidelines for mosques that, if followed, could prevent the emergence of social and political tensions. First, mosques, both in terms of their architecture and their socio-geographic impact should be constructed in such a way to limit the perception of their presence as “foreign bodies” by the host society; mosques’ architecture should respect the cultural tradition of their surroundings – in fact, minarets and domes are not a necessary requirement for a mosque.

Second, more Muslims need to open up their mosques, and be ready to adapt to the host society in terms of language in order to provide the ground for a respectful dialogue.

On both accounts, the mosque in the Bavarian town of Penzberg is a case in point. The mosque was not only designed in exchange with its initiators, a German architect and the citizens of the area, but its community is also engaged in organizing public forums and open events of all kinds. Another success story is written in Cambridge (UK), where Europe’s first eco-mosque is currently being realized by the Muslim Academic Trust. Its design being based on the principles of sustainability, the new landmark emphasizes “the role of faith in promoting responsible management of the earth’s resources”.

Mosque in the Bavarian town of Penzberg

Third, not only the Muslims have to adapt, but also the members of the host society have to acknowledge and accept the increasing religious and cultural diversity in their own ranks. Here, politicians and their parties play a key role and must incentivize and accept invitations to participate in activities at mosques. By putting emphasis on the multicultural reality fostering an integrative policy approach, they can help bringing Muslims and their mosques into the center of the society. The Ramadan Tent of Marburg’s Muslim community is one such example of positive involvement of politicians to help bring the Muslim community into the mainstream. On three evenings during the holy month of Ramadan 2011, the community invited political figures, representatives of other religions, and the broad public to an open Iftar (breaking the fast) in a tent in the city center.

Marburg’s Ramadan Tent 2011 (c) Sara Selzer

Although contemporary Europe is far away from what Emperor Frederick the Great was promising, occurrences such as the Ramadan Tent and the integrative activities around Penzberg’s Mosque – bridging Muslim communities with their social and political contexts – are signs of a better future. In light of Europe’s recent shift to the political right, however, more pro-activity on both ends is required in order to counterbalance the increasingly uncomfortable dynamic, which has already caused serious harm to Europe’s social peace.

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5 thoughts on “A Way Forward through European Mosque Politics by Omar Kassab

  1. Well written, nice research. It’s great you can point out the evolution in western Europe in this US blog.

  2. Hi Omar,

    Great job on this post!

    I do have to say that from my own sensibility, when I first read your post I wanted to shout — why should the Muslims have to conform to the society into which they are immigrating. Here in the United States there is not a clear sense of “American” culture, until something non-American shows up, and it is immediately seen as a sort of threat. I have a feeling things are different in Europe – that there is more of clarity within each of the countries about what it means to be “German” v. being “French”. So is there an active aspect of German culture that wants to keep it “purely” German or can German culture adopt in new aspects such as Turkish minarets when a significant increase of their population not only comes from Turkey, but begins reproducing new German people albeit with Turkish roots?

    And yet, as I understand it, Muslim “culture” regardless of its particular expressions in various cultures, does have within its tradition the possibility of looking like the surrounding culture (in accidentals – such as how mosques are decorated – coloring, tiles, styles of designs) as long as the singular beliefs are maintained…. correct? So as you’ve pointed out this is more of culture against culture thing. But in that case, aside from religion, should people that are coming to work, to build up someone else’s completely have to conform to that new culture? Why can’t they bring in minarets?

    What do you think about my rambling questions?

  3. Dear Kelly, thank you for your feedback. You are really pointing to a very important facet of the problem that definitely needs to be addressed!

    Well, although I believe that there certainly is something inherently “German” or “French” about the respective societies, I wouldn’t say that this characteristic is “active”, but rather re-active. At least in that sense, it is not very different from what you describe regarding the reactions to “non-American” elements in your society. In Europe, I argue, these inherent traditional characteristics have been there, for many centuries, and through the generations. Until the massive wave of immigration (after WWII), however, this tradition had not been challenged.

    Now, I do believe that the European mainstream has acknowledged the increasing cultural diversity. And I don’t agree with people that say that the “project multiculturalism has failed” (Chancelor Angela Merkel). But I also think (and respect) that there is a considerable number of people here that (still) define their belief system according to traditional values. The increasing number of immigrants – and a large number of them happen to be Muslim – has thus caused some sort of “identity insecurity” among members of the established European societies. Be they first, second, or even third generation Muslims in Germany.

    Instead of designing gradual integrative policies, opportunistic right-wing politicians have used the intense polarization that this existentialist topic has evoked to mobilize millions of voters in Europe. As I had described above, no one else but the Muslims and their “foreign culture” have become the easy target of several populist campaigns. As you can imagine, this has really harmed Europe’s social peace. So the three guidelines suggest above (1) ask Muslims to respect the “identity insecurity” of the traditionalist social segment, they (2) invite Muslims to proactively contribute to a gradual (!) adaptation, and they (3) demand decision makers not to opt for votes but rather for policies that can make peaceful coexistence possible – regardless of the mosque’s design.

    Does this make sense to you, Kelly?

    Greetings across the ocean, from Zurich to Charlottesville!

  4. Kelly raises a very interesting question indeed. My feeling is that there are competing expectations here: certainly any group has a reasonable expectation that their culture should be recognized, respected and welcomed by their new neighbours (as long as there isn’t some non-negotiable clash of fundamental values involved). At the same time, those neighbours have an equally reasonable expectation that their culture will be valued and respected by the new arrivals. This is not always an easy situation to square, but it strikes me that there shouldn’t be an immediate presumption in favour of either new arrivals or established residents: each case should be tried on its individual merits.

    A further consideration: would you be willing to conform to the dress codes required by those of another religion if visiting a site considered holy by that religion? I ask because it seems to me you could make a similar argument: why shouldn’t I be able to wear my hat / shorts / whatever? The analogy is not precise but I think it’s intriguing.

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