Europe's Mosque Wars
by Soeren Kern
As Americans debate the appropriateness of building a Muslim mosque near Ground Zero in New York City, similar discussions have been taking place in towns and cities across Europe, where the spread of Islam is far more advanced than it is in the United States. Although Muslims and their supporters in Europe usually frame the issue of mosque construction within the context of granting religious freedom to minorities, most, if not all, of the more controversial European mosque projects are motivated by politics at least as much as by religion.
There currently are an estimated 6,000 mosques in Europe. Many of them are housed in makeshift structures such as small shops, basements, offices, garages and rented rooms. But as the Muslim population in Europe increases by more than one million people per year, Muslims across the continent are becoming increasingly more assertive in their demands to build high-profile mosques that clearly are meant to challenge the European status quo.
Critics say the construction of mosques is part of a strategy for the Islamization of Europe. They point to comments by Muslim leaders like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has bragged: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers." Erdogan has also told Turkish immigrants in Germany that "assimilation is a crime against humanity."
Although Europe's postmodern political elites, especially on the left, have encouraged the rise of Islam in Europe, often in a deliberate attempt to undermine the influence of Judeo-Christian values on the continent, growing numbers of ordinary Europeans are saying that the social experiment called multiculturalism has gone too far. Voters in countries ranging from Austria to Spain, and many places in between, have been pushing back against the unfettered expansion of Islam in Europe. Many Europeans are especially angry at the refusal of younger Muslims to integrate into their host countries. In some European countries, opponents of the construction of new mosques have achieved limited successes. But for the most part, the construction of new mosques in Europe continues apace.
In Britain, plans to build Europe's biggest mosque in London were scrapped in January 2010, after some 250,000 people petitioned the government to prevent the project from moving forward. The so-called mega-mosque, which was being promoted by Tablighi Jamaat, a secretive Islamic sect that has been tied to Al Qaeda, would have held four times as many worshippers as Britain's largest Anglican cathedral. It was intended to be operational in time for the 2012 London Olympics. Critics of the mosque, including a number of other Muslim groups, said it would have given Tablighi Jamaat "a huge national platform, right by the Olympics, for them to promote their ideology." Overall, there are an estimated 1,600 mosques in Britain, almost half of which are under the control of the hardline Islamic Deobandi sect, whose leading preacher, Riyadh ul Haq, supports armed jihad and preaches contempt for Jews, Christians and Hindus.
In Germany, a controversial new mega mosque in Cologne is scheduled for completion in late 2010. The futuristic mosque, which will hold up to 4,000 worshippers, will have a large dome and two 55-meter (180 feet) minarets that will be as tall as an 18-story office tower. The 4,500-square-meter (48,000-square-foot) mosque has a price tag of €20 million ($26 million). It is being financed by private donations from more than 800 groups in Germany, and is being built by the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), which is a branch of the Turkish government's religious affairs authority. Critics of the project say the mosque will spoil Cologne's skyline by taking attention away from the city's Gothic cathedral, a globally famous Christian landmark.
In France, construction began in May 2010 of a new mega mosque in Marseille, France's second-largest city which is home to 250,000 Muslims. The Grand Mosque, which at 92,000 square feet will accommodate up to 7,000 worshippers in a vast prayer hall, is designed to be the biggest and most potent symbol of Islam's place in modern France. At least two lawsuits filed by groups attempting to block construction of the mosque have failed. Donors from Saudi Arabia and Algeria are helping to pay for the mosque's €20 million price tag. Overall, there are more than 1,500 mosques in France, almost as many as exist in Istanbul, Turkey. France's most prominent Muslim leader, the rector of the Grande Mosque of Paris, recently called for the number of mosques in France to be doubled to 4,000.
In Sweden, the Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan's Mosque, also known as the Stockholm Grand Mosque, was inaugurated in 2000, after years of delays due to protests and appeals. The mosque can accommodate up to 2,000 worshippers and the building includes a library, bookshop, gym, offices, lecture halls and a large kitchen. The mosque's leadership has been accused of having ties to the Sunni pan-Islamist movement Muslim Brotherhood. The Stockholm Grande Mosque Foundation is now proposing the construction of an 11,000-square-meter Andalusian-style mega mosque in the Tensta district of northern Stockholm. The 400 million Kroner ($55 million) project will be paid for by Saudi Prince Abdulazizi ben Fahd, the son of former Saudi king Fahd, as "a gift to honor his deceased father."
In Denmark, the municipality of Copenhagen has approved the construction of a mega mosque in the Nørrebro district that its sponsor, the Iran-based Al-ul Bayt Association, says will be the largest mosque in Europe. Construction of the nine-story complex, which will include a prayer room, amphitheatre, conference centre, library and housing quarters for visiting imams, will begin in early 2011. The proposed construction of another mega mosque in Arhus, Denmark's second-largest city, was abandoned in 2008 after local Muslims failed to raise the €10 million construction cost.
In Poland, a group affiliated with the radical Muslim Brotherhood has announced plans to build a mega mosque in Warsaw. The so-called Center for Islamic Culture in Poland is designed to accommodate up to 10,000 worshippers. At 12 meters high, the mosque will be accompanied by a minaret of 18 meters. Opponents of the mosque say they oppose "a mosque built with Saudi money when it's illegal to have a Bible or cross in Saudi Arabia." They have unsuccessfully petitioned the mayor of Warsaw for "an immediate halt to the work." In Krakow, residents are debating the proposed construction of the Al-Fan Islamic Cultural Center. Opponents say there are not enough Muslims in the city to justify the construction of a large Muslim cultural center.
In Spain, Muslims have demanded they be given the right to worship in the cathedral of Córdoba. The 24,000-square-meter building was a mosque during the medieval Islamic kingdom of Al-Andalus. It was turned into a Christian cathedral in the 13th century. Muslims are hoping to recreate the ancient city of Córdoba, which was once the heart of Al-Andalus, as a pilgrimage site for Muslims throughout Europe. Funds for the project are being sought from the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, and Muslim organizations in Morocco and Egypt.
In Switzerland, voters in 2009 overwhelmingly approved a referendum to ban the construction of minarets. The surprise outcome of the referendum, which passed with a clear majority of 57.5 percent of the voters, represented a turning point in the debate about Islam, not only in Switzerland, but across Europe more generally. Similar minaret bans have been proposed in Holland and Italy.
In Holland, construction of the Essalam mega mosque in Rotterdam was halted after the builders ran out of money. The Dubai-based Al Maksoum Foundation, which has financed several other mosques in Europe, has promised to cover the €2.6 million shortfall. Meanwhile, the Dutch government is reportedly co-financing the construction of the new mosque at Ground Zero with $1 million of Dutch taxpayers' money.
In Italy, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said he wants to close a Milan mosque because crowds attending Friday prayers spill onto the street and bother the neighbors. In 2008, the city of Bologna scrapped plans for a new mosque, saying Muslim leaders failed to meet certain requirements, including making public its source of funding. Meanwhile, an estimated 60 percent of the mosques in Italy are controlled either directly or indirectly by the Muslim Brotherhood. In April 2010, the imam of Milan's central Viale Jenner mosque, the Egyptian-born Abu Imad, was arrested on terrorism charges.
In Austria, the southern province of Carinthia in 2008 passed a law that effectively bans the construction of mosques or minarets by requiring them to fit within the overall look and harmony of villages and towns. In Bad Voslau, a traditional Austrian town of about 11,000 people south of Vienna, local residents are up in arms over a multi-million dollar Islamic Cultural Center that was built with help from the Turkish government.
In Belgium, dozens of Christian churches are being turned into mosques as Christian congregations decline while Muslims demand more places to worship. In the city of Beringen, the rector of the Fatih mosque recently asked the municipality for permission to install loudspeakers on the minaret so that the muezzin can call the faithful to prayer five times a day.