Measuring Kreuzberg’s mosque tolerance

Germans in several cities are complaining about plans to build new mosques, but Ben Knight finds it’s the integrated Muslims in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district eyeing a new house of worship there most sceptically.

Measuring Kreuzberg's mosque tolerance
Photo: DPA

Sitting in his makeshift office, Birol Ucan has developed an unshakable optimism for addressing the media.

At a time when many Germans seem increasingly hostile to Islam putting down roots in their country, this kind of attitude is probably necessary for the big-bellied spokesman of an obscure Arab organization building a new mosque in the heart of Berlin.

“We thought this room would make a good hairdresser’s,” he says, indicating the waist-high power sockets and the plumbing in the wall beside us. “We don’t have a tenant yet, but it’s cheaper to install fixtures in advance.”

This potential barbershop is one of the shop-fronts being installed on the ground floor of the shiny new Maschari Centre currently being built by the Islamic group al-Habash next to Görlitzer Bahnhof in Berlin’s multicultural Kreuzberg district.

Standing up, Ucan leads me along a glass corridor behind the retail spaces (soon to be a grocery store and a café, he promises) to the lobby, which, with its revolving door, wall-to-wall tiling and reception desk, would suit any mid-range hotel chain.

“Looks nice, doesn’t it?” Ucan remarks, before swinging a flabby arm towards the mosque itself, where a couple of builders look up from their circular saws in a cloud of fine building dust. “Mecca is that way,” he points to a large alcove taking up one corner of the hall. The mosque will host Sunni services, in Turkish and Arabic, despite al-Habash’s unique Arabic roots.

The majority of Muslims in Kreuzberg – and Germany – are Sunni Turks, but al-Habash is an eccentric presence not always welcome all over the Islamic world. Without a militia or a declared enmity to Israel, it is sometimes seen in the West as a peaceful influence in the Lebanon, its home country. But al-Habash is ostracized by many orthodox Muslims, who regard its mixture of Sunni and Shia doctrine and its idiosyncratic interpretation of the Koran as blasphemous.

But none of that can dampen Ucan’s upbeat outlook – he has six more floors to show me. They include various large function rooms – “for funerals or weddings” – and a roof terrace. Like most of the new mosques being built in Germany, this is a multi-functional community centre as much as a house of worship.

Germans have recently started grumbling publicly about the construction of these large, high-profile new mosques all over their country. There has been talk of “creeping Islamization” and the creation of “parallel societies.” The increasingly open insinuation is that shadowy Islamic groups with unaccounted-for wealth are bankrolling gaudy, unnecessary buildings in order to consciously colonize innocent, secular German communities.

Even the multi-functionalism of these buildings is seen as an attempt to draw Muslims away from the influence of western society and it’s often portrayed as nothing less than a conspiracy against the principles of Germany’s liberal democracy.

Ucan is aware of the prejudices and he takes unsolicited efforts to point out that his mosque will strive to lead young Muslims away from radical groups, “who are, unfortunately, also active in Berlin.” Anxiously heading off the expected criticisms, he talks of the German lessons that will be offered here and the architecture that is meant to blend with the Wilhelmine house next door.

This fretful reassurance is surprising, seeing that an unusual tolerance had settled over this structure since its construction began a few years ago. Where mosques in Cologne, Hamburg and in the eastern Berlin suburb of Pankow have provoked citizens’ initiatives and street demonstrations, this one has been allowed to quietly edge towards completion. Any kind of alarmist reaction has been noticeably muted, confined to a few complaints at public meetings.

Perhaps this relative harmony is linked to the new immigrant wealth blossoming in this corner of Kreuzberg – which is frequently called “Little Istanbul” because of its sizable Turkish population. But it’s not more Muslims who are moving here. Richer immigrants speaking English, French and Spanish are sprouting up under the neighbourhood’s café-awnings. Independent art galleries have elbowed room between Turkish bakeries and discount goods stores, and the scent of tapas and sushi now mingles with the smell of döner kebabs.

And so it’s perhaps odd to hear the new arrivals seem more tolerant of the mosque in their midst than some of the long-term Turkish residents.

Kadir Karabulut is a 28-year-old businessman and student who owns a café called Park only a block from the Maschari Centre. Opened this spring, Park has been trying to lure Kreuzberg’s eclectic mix of people with exclusive food, jazz trios and reasonable prices. He has an American girlfriend and is in the middle of an MA thesis in Jewish studies, making him potential poster boy for Kreuzberg’s relative success in integrating its Muslim residents.

And Karabulut has fully adopted two widespread German attitudes regarding integration. First, he has a weird distrust of something called “multicultural romanticism,” meaning he believes that cultural assimilation is necessary for society and that any other opinion is liberal naivety. Secondly, he suggests that religion is inherently an obstacle to integration.

“What bothers me is when Green voters tolerate very reactionary things in the middle of their society – like imams banning girls from sport lessons at school,” Karabulut says in response to questions about the new mosque down the street.

And he’s not the only secular Turk apparently taking a tougher line on the religious Muslisms in their midst than Kreuzberg’s bohemian Germans and other westerners.

Ahmet Iyidirli, a former Social Democratic candidate for the city parliament and a Berliner since 1975, offers a response worthy of Germany’s conservative bourgeoisie when he hears how eagerly Birol Ucan denied al-Habash had any radical religious tendencies.

“So he should be,” he says.

For members


EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.