The rise of mosques becomes catalyst for conflict across Europe
A minaret planned for a Swiss village has prompted the latest of several disputes over new places of worship
Ian Traynor in Wangen, Switzerland
Thursday October 11, 2007
North of Berne in an idyllic Alpine valley cowbells tinkle, a church steeple rises, and windowboxes tumble with geraniums. It has always been like this.
But down by the railway station the 21st century is rudely intruding and the villagers of Wangen are upset.
“It's the noise, and all the cars. You should see it on a Friday night,” complains Roland Kissling, a perfume buyer for a local cosmetics company. “I've got nothing against mosques, or even against minarets. But in the city. Not in this village. It's just not right. There's going to be trouble.”
The target of Mr Kissling's ire is a nondescript house belonging to the region's Turkish immigrant community. The basement is a prayer room where hundreds of Muslims gather every week for Friday rites.
And in a case that has gone all the way to Switzerland's supreme court, setting a keenly watched precedent, the Turks of Wangen have just won the right to erect a six-metre-high minaret.
“We'll build it by next year. We're still deciding what colour and what material,” says Mustafa Karahan, the sole person authorised to speak for Wangen's Turkish Cultural Association. “We don't have any problems. It's the other side that has the problems. We're not saying anything else until the minaret is built.”
If Ulrich Schler has his way the Wangen minaret will be toppled. An MP from the rightwing Swiss People's party (SVP), the country's strongest, Mr Schler has launched a crusade to keep his country culturally Christian.
“Unlike other religions,” he argues, “Islam is not only a religion. It's an ideology aiming to create a different legal system. That's sharia. That's a big problem and in a proper democracy it has to be tackled. If the politicians don't, the people will.”
Switzerland's direct democracy rules require referendums if there is enough public support. Mr Schler has launched a petition demanding a new clause in the Swiss constitution stating: “The building of minarets in Switzerland is forbidden.” He already has 40,000 signatures. If, as expected, he reaches 100,000 by this time next year a referendum is automatically triggered.
“We've got nothing against prayer rooms or mosques for the Muslims,” he insists. “But a minaret is different. It's got nothing to do with religion. It's a symbol of political power.”
In a country with more than 300,000 Muslims, mainly immigrants from the Balkans, there are only three minarets in Switzerland. Wangen would be the fourth and the first outside the cities.
The native backlash has begun. And not just in Switzerland. “It seems our experience here is resonating across Europe,” says a Swiss official in Berne.
“Culture clashes” over Muslim religious buildings have erupted in Italy, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands.
“Christian fundamentalists are behind this,” says Reinhard Schulze, professor of Islamic studies at Berne University. “And there's also a lot of money coming in from the Gulf states.”
From London's docklands to the rolling hills of Tuscany, from southern Austria to Amsterdam and Cologne, the issue of Islamic architecture and its impact on citadels of “western civilisation” is increasingly contentious.
The far right is making capital from Islamophobia by focusing on the visible symbols of Islam in Europe. In Switzerland it is the far-right SVP that is setting the terms of the debate.
“This is mainly about Swiss politics,” says Prof Schulze, “a conflict between the right and the left to decide who runs the country … Islam [is] a pretext.”
Next door in Austria the far right leader Jrg Haider is also calling for a ban in his province of Carinthia, even though there are few Muslims and no known plans for mosques. “Carinthia,” he said, “will be a pioneer in the battle against radical Islam for the protection of our dominant western culture.”
In Italy the mayors of Bologna and Genoa last month cancelled or delayed planning permission for mosques after a vociferous campaign by the far-right Northern League, one of whose leaders, Roberto Calderoli, threatened to stage a “day of pork” to offend Muslims and to take pigs to “defile” the site of the proposed mosque in Bologna.
While the far right makes the running, their noisy campaign is being supported more quietly by mainstream politicians and some Christian leaders. And on the left pro-secularist and anti-clericalist sentiment is also frequently ambivalent about Islamic building projects.
Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne has voiced his unease over a large new mosque being built for the city's 120,000 Muslims in the Rhineland Roman Catholic stronghold. A similar scheme in Munich has also faced local protests.
The Bishop of Graz in Austria has been more emphatic. “Muslims should not build mosques which dominate town's skylines in countries like ours,” said Bishop Egon Kapellari.
This opposition is on a collision course with an Islam that is now the fastest-growing religion in Europe and which is clamouring for its places of worship to be given what it sees as a rightful and visible place in west European societies.
“Islam is coming out of the backyards. It's a trend you see everywhere in Europe,” says Thomas Schmitt, a Bonn University geographer studying conflicts over mosques in Germany.
Estimated at about 18 million and growing, the Muslims of western Europe have long worshipped in prayer rooms located in homes, disused factories, warehouses or car parks, hidden away from public view. Their growing self-confidence, though, is reflected in plans for the Abbey Mills mosque, Britain's biggest, in east London, which is intended to have a capacity of 40,000.
Last month there were scuffles at the site of the Westermoskee in west Amsterdam. A Dutch government minister broke ground for building one of the Netherlands' biggest mosques last year. But the project is mired in controversy and may not be completed.
“The whole idea of having these huge mosques is about being part of Europe while having your religion,” says Thijl Sunier, a Dutch anthropologist. “You have young Muslims showing their confidence, stating we are part of this society and we want our share. And you have growing anxiety among many native Europeans.”
In Berne, the Swiss capital, the city authorities have just denied building permission for turning a disused abattoir into Europe's biggest Islamic cultural centre, a 40m complex with a mosque, a museum on Islam, a hotel, offices and conference halls. Organisers are looking for an alternative site.
Dr Schmitt says that by hiring leading architects to build impressive mosques that alter the appearance of European cities Muslims are making a commitment to the societies in which they live. “They are no longer guests. They are established. This is a sign of normalisation, of integration,” he says.
But in Wangen, that message falls on deaf ears. “First it was a cultural centre, then a prayer room, and now a minaret,” says Mr Kissling. “It's salami tactics. The next thing it will be loudspeakers and the calls to prayer will be echoing up and down the valley. Our children will ask 'what did our fathers do', and their answer will be – they did nothing.”
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