Muslims mull mosque debate after Swiss vote

The Swiss vote to forbid the construction of mosques with minarets has sparked calls for a similar ban in Germany. Robert Rigney samples the mood of the country’s Muslim community.

Muslims mull mosque debate after Swiss vote
Photo: DPA

Most people wouldn’t consider Switzerland a very trendy place, but Meho Travljanin worries the small, alpine nation’s anti-Islamic sentiments could soon become fashionable throughout much of Europe.

“My fear is that the discussion has spread from Switzerland to all of Europe,” says Travljanin, referring to the country’s controversial referendum in November banning the building of mosques with minarets.

An official at the Bosnian Cultural Centre in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, Travljanin believes other countries including Germany could now attempt similar bans as the Swiss vote helps fan fears of a growing Islamification of Europe.

“Over time of course mosques will be built,” says Travljanin. “The fact is there are more and more Muslims in Germany and in Europe. And it is also a fact that these people are here to stay and these people are going to want their places of worship.”

Prior to the Swiss referendum, Germany was already in the midst of a debate about the nearly 200 mosques which are currently being planned. If all are built, they would double the existing number of Muslim houses of worship in the country.

Although Germany has had a sizeable, mostly Turkish, Muslim community since the sixties, the building of mosques in Germany is a relatively new phenomenon. Up until now most Muslims in Germany have prayed hidden from view in old factory buildings, basements, converted offices and garages.

“We say that one should not be afraid of a minaret,” says Ender Cetin, spokesman for the Turkish –Islamic Union. “We ask the question is it better to have a courtyard mosque where the normal citizen might be afraid to enter? Or is it better to have a familiar mosque with dome and tower?”

Cetin’s office in the Sehitlik mosque in Berlin, a four-year-old traditional Ottoman style construction complete with marble façade, dome, and twin minarets. It is located on land that has been linked to Turkey for 140 years, since the Ottomans were present in Prussia.

He sees the Swiss vote and reactions by some German politicians as putting considerable pressure on the Muslim community.

“It pushes us into the corner a bit,” says Cetin. “Of course a minaret is not necessary. We don’t need a minaret for prayer. It just shows that we have arrived.”

The mosque that has garnered much attention in Germany recently is being built in Cologne. A 2,000-capacity building with twin minarets that will reach 170 feet high, the house of worship was designed by German architect Paul Böhm, who is not Muslim. Construction on the mosque began last year, causing an outcry among locals who described the structure as too big and affront to the city’s Christian traditions. One critic went so far as to describe the mosque as a “declaration of war” culturally.

In response to the vehement opposition encountered in Europe, some Muslims in Germany are rethinking how a mosque should look.

Alen Jasarevic is a Bosnian-German architect of a critically acclaimed new mosque in the town of Penzberg in Bavaria. At first glance it doesn’t look like a mosque at all: it is modest, unassuming, disarming, modern, transparent and discreet.

The façades, which are clad in pale sandstone, give a little indication of the building’s function. But the entrance features two concrete slabs that swing out of the wall like open gates, inviting visitors into the house in German and Arabic script. Most remarkable is the minaret, a tall column illuminated from within with words in Arabic calling the faithful to prayer visually.

“I want to show the society here that we can keep up, that we can be innovative, that we understand our faith as not merely something from the past, but rather something that continuously develops and which can create such buildings,” says Jasarevic.

He explains he wanted to create a building that could be accepted by the German public, something that was open to everyone, “not like an Ottoman mosque which lands like a UFO” in Germany.

Travljanin from the Bosnian cultural centre agrees innovation could be the answer to Europe’s mosque debate.

“I think that Muslims, no matter where they live in Europe, of course have to try to fit in with the architectural structure of cities,” says Travljanin. “And this is in keeping with Islam. There were no minarets in the beginning of Islam.”

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