Not in My Backyard, Say an Increasing Number of Germans

Jochen Bölsche, Spiegel, July 16, 2008

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.

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.

“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.”

Building Code Violations and other Community Spats

After her experience with the mosque on Columbiadamm, Vogelsang appeared determined “not to allow herself to be tricked” and not to allow further Muslim communities to massively violate building code. Later, she successfully blocked an association called Inssan, which had plans to build an immense mosque center in Neukölln, which is already home to 15 official mosques and 31 other prayer rooms. The proposed structure violated “all zoning ordinances,” she claims.

The 8,000-square-meter complex had been planned for a strictly residential area with no bus service or parking lots; and it would have been located near the Rütli School, which became infamous throughout Germany in 2006 for its high level of student violence. The building was designed to sit along the street on a strip of land 73 meters wide, rather than the prescribed 13 meters, with an area 40 percent greater than that permitted in the area.

Financing for the project also seemed dubious to Vogelsang. After the builders “almost snottily” rejected requests for disclosure of their sources of funding to district authorities. She eventually found out through the Berlin state government’s Interior Ministry that “Saudi and other Arab foundations” were behind the project—countries ranking at the bottom of the list on the global scale of religious freedom.

The building lot had been purchased by Ibrahim el-Zayat, a representative of the Islamic Community of Germany organization. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, claims the group has connections to the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical groups. Vogelsang doesn’t believe the Inssan Association’s assertions that there are no strings attached to the donations from the Middle East. “You find someone who is willing to give me €15 to €20 million with no strings attached,” she says.

Vogelsang considers herself lucky “that the mosque could be rejected because of construction ordinances,” but the Inssan Association is already pursuing a new strategy. It now wants to build the mosque center in a commercial zone in western Berlin’s Charlottenburg neighborhood. The site first chosen in a residential part of Neukölln was zoned for chuches, but not meeting places of the mass scale of the mosque center.

The organization has also been taking great pains to publicly position itself as being moderate in its approach to Islam. It arranges PR training for its members, criticizes forced marriages and runs blood drives and environmental campaigns. In this, diehard opponents see less a sign of liberalization than a camouflage intended to deflect attention from the group’s dubious funding sources and Islamist backers.

“To get in good with the Berlin elite, you meet with members of the dialogue industry and put on some politically correct events,” says Ian Johnson, an American author, Pulitzer Prize winner and Islam expert living in Berlin.

Instead of putting all their cards on the table when they meet with adjacent property owners, leaders of an association wanting to build will strike a deal with “the usual clique of politicians and officials in charge of immigrant issues,” says Johnson, and then put “a mosque right down in the middle of the neighborhood.” This approach carries the danger that “through the lack of a democratic outlet,” residents will be pushed into the arms of right-wing populists who reject the construction projects for “nationalistic or racist reasons.”

Public opinion polls generally show that the predominant view in Germany’s major cities is that Muslims should have a right to places of worship beyond those hidden behind courtyards—as long as the plans comply with building laws and fit their surroundings. At the same time, a majority supports the position of journalist Giordano, who suggests there is “no fundamental right to building a mega-mosque,” especially if it disrupts the look of the city around it. A balance, says Giordano, must be found “between the back courtyard and the centrally located grand mosque.”

The group that is dead set against the construction of any type of mosque is a relatively small minority. But in addition to affected residents and xenophobes whose views cannot be changed, this group of opponents also notably includes Islam experts from the Muslim world.

There are “more than enough mosques in Germany,” says Mina Ahadi, co-founder of Germany’s Central Council of Ex-Muslims. Ahadi has been under police protection since she publicly renounced Islam—a crime punishable by death according to radical interpretations of sharia law.”

“When a mosque is built,” Ahadi says, “the result is that greater pressure is placed on women, and even more children are forced to wear a headscarf to school, which leads to isolation.” She accuses German politicians of “boundless naiveté” in their dealings with Islamic organizations that, she argues, “ultimately want to instate sharia law.”

Meanwhile, among those local politicians who have no general objections to mosques being built, there is an increasing willingness to investigate the true ambitions and financial backers of the builders more fully than in the past. This is not always easy, however, given the complexity of the situation as well as the fact that imams’ sermons are mostly delivered in languages other than German. Moreover, some groups are adept at strategies for concealing intentions that run contrary to the German constitution, using what the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution calls “legality tactics”—in other words, using government means to get around government laws.

Even DITIB, the comparatively moderate organization behind the mosque project in Cologne, arouses mistrust. DITIB is the long arm of a religious institution in secular Turkey. “What will most likely happen,” ask the residents of Cologne who take part in the protests, “if the feared Islamization of Turkey happens? Will DITIB bring it over here?”

Cologne’s Archbishop Joachim Meisner is already warning people about of areas in Germany “where sharia law is increasingly spreading.” In the case of DITIB, this warning might be premature or simply inaccurate. At the same time, however, the association is remotely controlled from Ankara and has a reputation for being more concerned with helping to maintain the identity of Turkish immigrants than with helping them integrate in their new homes.

The worldview of Ahmadiyya, the organization that currently wants to build one of its planned 100 mosques in Berlin’s northern Pankow district, also causes some unease. Every now and then, rumors escape the mosque walls claiming that many of the group’s leaders consider not only women and Jews to be second-class citizens, but also homosexuals. In 2007, an Ahmadiyya Web site stated that the “increasing tendency toward homosexuality” could be traced to the consumption of pork.

Widespread protests against Ahmadiyya by residents of Schlüchtern in the western state of Hesse led the town to change its zoning laws so as to prevent a planned mosque that would have included minarets from being built. In other locations as well, politicians are becoming more and more inclined to use city-planning laws as a way of limiting or completely prohibiting dubious projects by questionable developers.

This is exactly what Bonn did when the city voted against the construction of a cultural center with minarets on the grounds that the project would further aggravate the “uncontested and ongoing formation of ghettos” in a specific Muslim-influenced neighborhood. In Munich, the city government rejected a proposed mosque project because its “disproportionate mass” would have allegedly impacted a square whose buildings are on historical-preservation lists.

Minarets ‘By No Means Compulsory’

Cologne wants to prevent two associations from building a mosque in the district of Mülheim because they have contacts with the Islamic organization Milli Görüs. Norbert Fuchs, the district’s mayor, certainly sees it as a “problem (when) political questions are dealt with by using building ordinances.” For his part, though, Cologne’s Deputy Mayor Guido Kahlen is convinced that: “In those cases where we have room for administrative discretion, we have to use it.”

Seeing that this mindset appears to be catching on in other places, builders are apparently becoming more and more willing to exclude minarets from their architectural plans. As they see it, people living near these mosques view the minarets less as symbols of integration and more as demonstrations of power.

When Leggewie gives out advice, he says that mosques should be built without the classic soaring towers—on practical grounds. “As soon as a mosque differs from the look of the city around it through its ‘foreign’ form,” Leggewie reasons, “you can count on greater resistance, which often necessitates more involved authorization procedures.”

“The traditional style underscores, even unintentionally,” Leggewie adds, “the orientation of Muslims toward the areas most important to Islam and toward their homelands.” And lastly, he points out, the Middle Eastern style of a mosque with minarets is “by no means compulsory.”

Indeed, a counterexample is the mosque of the Turkish parliament in Ankara, built in 1989, which doesn’t have minarets. And than there’s a “mosque for the future” planned for London’s East End. Plans for the mosque envision space for 70,000 worshippers in a high-tech structure with a glass roof instead of a dome and wind turbines instead of minarets.

For the proposed Ahmadiyya mosque in Hausen, near Frankfurt, architect Mubashra Ilyas has designed a simple building with “Bauhaus elements” and one symbolic minaret that people passing by can only see from a certain angle. As Ilyas explains it, this is “because it’s certainly easier for native Germans living in the area to live with it that way.”

In any case, minarets are no longer needed for the muezzin’s call. A call to prayer is redundant, according to Fazlur Rehman Anwar of the Ahmadiyya mosque in Eimsbüttel, Hamburg: “After all, there are watches.”

On the other hand, when Muslim builders with financial backers in the Middle East insist on enormous, showy multipurpose centers in Turkish or Arab style, they must accept a high degree of political risk. The openly Middle Eastern style may lead to a flare up in the already smoldering debate about religious freedom in the countries that back these projects financially, since some are countries in which Christians are violently persecuted and prevented from building churches.

Representatives of both the Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany continue to emphasize that they have in no way made their approval of mosque construction contingent on Muslim countries’ allowing Christians to build churches there. At the same time, however, they let it be known that they can’t accept the status quo in the long run.

While Protestant Bishop Huber calls for “Muslims’ unrestricted right to convert,” his Catholic colleague Archbishop Meisner has appealed to the DITIB, who are building the mosque in Cologne, “to support a project in Turkey.” As Meisner explains: “The Pope has declared 2008 to be the Year of St. Paul (as) we are celebrating of the 2000th birthday of the apostle Paul. Yet at his birthplace in Tarsus, we Christians have nothing … We need to campaign to be allowed to build a pilgrim center and a small church there. In return, that would be taken into account here in Cologne.”

Less elegant than the cardinal’s approach—which, admittedly, met with no success—is the direct method used by some representatives of the CDU. While representatives of the Christian Social Union (CSU) the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, were satisfied with the stipulation that minarets could not rise higher than church steeples, local CDU members in Castrop-Rauxel, a city in western Germany, recently agreed to a disproportionately radical resolution on the topic.

Of course mosque construction should be allowed, the CDU members say, but land usage must be strictly restricted: “We suggest applying the standards that are in effect for the construction of new Christian religious buildings in Turkey.”

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