The Reykjavík City Council has approved a building permit for the construction of the first mosque in Iceland.
The mosque will be built in Sogamýri, an upscale district near downtown Reykjavík on a highly desirable plot of land that was granted to Muslims free of charge, courtesy of Icelandic taxpayers.
Members of the city council -- which is led by Reykjavík Mayor Jón Gnarr, who identifies himself as an anarchist -- say they hope the prime location will make the mosque a prominent landmark in the city.
Critics of the mosque, however, say the project is being financed by donors in the Middle East who are seeking to exert control over -- and radicalize -- the growing Muslim community in Iceland.
Although reliable statistics do not exist, the Muslim population of Iceland is estimated to be approximately 1,200, or 0.4% of the total Icelandic population of 320,000. Most Muslims in Iceland live in the capital Reykjavík, where they make up about 1% of the total population of 120,000.
The Muslim community in Iceland may be small in comparison to other European countries, but its rate of growth has been exponential: Since 1990, when there were fewer than a dozen Muslims in the country, their number has increased by nearly 10,000%. Much of this growth has been due to immigration, but in recent years native Icelanders have also been converting to Islam in increasing numbers.
Currently there are two main Muslim groups in Iceland: the Muslim Association of Iceland, which has around 500 members, and the Islamic Cultural Center of Iceland, which has some 300 followers. The former group is run by Salmann Tamimi, a Palestinian immigrant who considers himself to be the voice of moderate Islam in Iceland; the latter group is run by Ahmad Seddeq, a firebrand preacher from Pakistan whose activities are allegedly being financed by Saudi Arabia.
Although both groups pertain to Sunni Islam, they have been openly fighting with each other for many years over who should be the rightful representative of Islam in Iceland.
In 2000, Tamimi -- whose group meets at a make-shift mosque on the third floor of an office building in downtown Reykjavík -- submitted an application to obtain a free plot of land from city authorities to build the first purpose-built mosque in Iceland.
Not to be outdone, Seddeq -- whose group meets at a make-shift mosque in an old concert hall near the Reykjavík airport -- submitted his own application for free land to build a competing mosque.
City officials responded by saying there should be only one mosque and that it should be shared by both groups. "Obviously we won't be allocating two lots for mosques at this point and we find it natural for them to cooperate on the construction of one mosque," Páll Hjaltason, the chairman of Reykjavík City's Urban Planning Council, told the newspaper Fréttabladid.
Seddeq said he was open to the idea of sharing one plot of land, but Tamimi, who submitted his application first, would have none of it. Instead, Tamimi lashed out at Seddeq, accusing him of extremism, fanaticism and oppression in the name of Islam.
"Our application is completely different from theirs," Salmann said in an interview with the newspaper Fréttabladid. "This is like asking the national church to be with the Jehovah's Witnesses."
Tamimi sought to undermine Seddeq's group by accusing it of being financed by Saudi Arabia. At one point, Tamimi called the police to report members of Seddeq's group, accusing them of misunderstanding the peaceful nature of Islam, and saying that he feared that Muslim extremists were attempting to gain a foothold in Iceland.
Tamimi also sought to assure the Reykjavík City Council that -- unlike Seddeq -- his mosque project would not be financed by foreigners and thus would not be promoting extremism.
"If we are going to have a mosque, it must be done according to local considerations," Tamimi said in October 2010. "As soon as you lose sight of the source of funding you lose control of what happens subsequently. The experience of other countries teaches that it is wise to reject large foreign investments in religion. Such investors are much more likely to import their own countries' traditions and not adapt to the traditions in their host country."
In the end, city officials sided with Tamimi, whose mosque project was formally approved on September 19. After more than a decade of bickering, construction of Reykjavík's first mosque is expected to begin in early 2014.
The cost of building the 800 square meter (8,600 square foot) mosque -- which will include a prayer hall, community center and library, as well as a nine-meter (30 foot) minaret -- is expected to exceed 400 million Icelandic Krona (€2.5 million; $3.3 million).
But now that the Reykjavík mosque project has been given the go-ahead, Tamimi's group has changed its tune and now admits that foreign donors will be paying for the mosque's construction costs after all.
During a newspaper interview on September 19 -- conducted just a few hours after the mosque project was approved -- Sverrir Agnarsson, a convert to Islam who is chairman of Tamimi's group, the Muslim Association of Iceland, was asked how the mosque would be financed.
"We have received numerous promises," Agnarsson said. "We are mostly seeking funding from individual foreigners. We have a right to get support from the collective funds of Muslims [the Ummah, or the worldwide community of Muslims]. We are doing all of this in cooperation with the Ministry of Justice to guarantee that all the money coming to us is received legally, and is not associated with any terrorist organizations," he added.
The idea that foreigners are financing the spread of Islam in Reykjavík does not sit well with many Icelanders.
One of the most vocal opponents of the mosque project has been the former mayor of Reykjavík, Ólafur F. Magnússon. In an article he wrote for the newspaper Morgunbladid, Magnússon laid out his position:
It is a matter of grave concern that it seems to be no problem for Muslims in Iceland to finance such a mosque here in Iceland with money from 'Muslim/Islamic promotion organizations' abroad. They could receive financial help from organizations that want to increase Islamic influence in Iceland as well as in other countries. This can be dangerous for our national culture and safety.
Magnússon also said why he thought it was wrong for foreign organizations to be financing the construction of mosques in Iceland:
Islam is a religion with the goal to eliminate all other religions and to expand all over the world, the West, the Nordic countries…and now even Iceland. The experience in the Nordic countries shows that Muslims are not adapting to society. This has become a huge problem, in Malmö [Sweden] for example. The other day, a mosque was to be built on Trondheim [Norway], but the Norwegian authorities canceled the project because some Saudi Arabian organization was to finance the whole thing.
Although he is not opposed to the mosque per se, Magnússon believes it is outrageous for the city to give Muslims a building site at no cost at a great location in the center of Reykjavík. He also asks why political movements and feminist groups in Iceland are so tolerant towards a religion that he says degrades women.
Part of the answer may be found in the political make-up of the Reykjavík City Council, which is led by the upstart Best Party, a so-called joke party that was propelled into office in 2010 as a backlash against establishment parties in the wake of Iceland's banking collapse in 2008.
The Best Party -- a semi-serious far left party that is home to anarchists, atheists, surrealists, punks and poets -- is being led by Jón Gnarr, a stand-up comedian whose stated political aim is thoroughly to upset the established order in Reykjavík. Critics say the new mosque represents a big step toward achieving Gnarr's objective.