Sanssouci revisited

After the recent Swiss vote against minarets, the issue was hotly debated in Germany too, from the traditional media to internet chat forums. A high number of participants supported the ban. Polls show that 38 per cent of Germans would like to follow the Swiss example: the real number is probably even higher
Qurratulain Zaman Thomas Baerthlein
2 March 2010

Once upon a time, the King of Prussia Frederick William IV decided he needed a steam engine to run the pumps for the fountains at his gardens in Sanssouci Castle, Potsdam. It was to be the most powerful steam engine in the whole of Germany in 1842. It was the king’s pride and joy: once again, Prussia was number one in Germany. A matter of prestige - the building had to be something special, something modern. He asked his architect to house the engine and the pumps in a mosque “built in Turkish style with a minaret as the chimney”. The king used to show this “mosque” to all his state guests.

The Potsdam 'Mosque'

Things couldn’t have changed more: What was considered modern, state-of-the-art architecture back then, is painted as a symbol of danger and backwardness in today’s Germany. In towns and cities hardly any other political issue fuels more public emotion than new mosques or minarets. 

Although France has more Muslims, Germany already has the highest number of mosques in any EU country – more than 2,600. But most of them don’t have a traditional architecture with a dome and minarets. These ‘backyard mosques’ were edifices improvised by the (mostly Turkish) migrant workers who converted factories or flats into prayer rooms. 

Once these Muslims realized that they were no longer ‘guest workers’ who would eventually return home, that in fact Germany was their new home, they wanted to give their makeshift prayer rooms the facade of a traditional mosque. 

The Cologne controversy

“We bought an old factory here in 1984 and made it a place for prayer,” says Bekir Alboga, director of interfaith dialogue at the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, or DITIB: “We didn’t anticipate there would be resistance against building a modern mosque with minarets here.”

 A picture of the Cologne Mosque is behind him


But the site in the central Cologne quarter of Ehrenfeld, at the intersection of two main thoroughfares, Innere Kanalstrasse and Venloer Strasse, became the most hotly contested mosque project in Germany. Only recently, construction has begun; for years, there were debates, agitations and protest marches in the city. “Pro Köln”, a small far-right party that had attracted some voters in local elections because of its opposition to previous mosque plans, spearheaded the agitation against the Ehrenfeld mosque with posters of a crossed-out mosque. After the Swiss vote against minarets, the party has adapted the Swiss posters which make minarets look like missiles.

Construction of the new Cologne Mosque


Manfred Rouhs is a member of the city council for “Pro Köln” and the head of the party (“Pro Deutschland”) at the federal level. He claims, “we are not against minarets or individual mosques. But there has been a problem with the immigrants since the 1960s because that was the time a large number of Muslims began arriving in Germany.”

‘Parallel society’

Mosque opponents such as well-known Cologne writer Ralph Giordano maintain that the integration of Muslims in German society ‘has failed’. According to them, big mosques give out the wrong signal - the religious and political symbol of a ‘parallel society’, a catchword in the German debate on immigration. It refers to immigrants supposedly living in their ghettos and refusing to interact with mainstream society. 

“I attended the Gymnasium (grammar school) in Krefeld and we had some Muslim students until 10th grade”, recalls 44 year old Rouhs. “Later and through university I didn’t know any Muslims. But my first apartment in Cologne was in Ehrenfeld, where I witnessed that the number of German shops dwindled as more and more Turkish people took over. The Germans withdrew from that area.“

The charge of establishing ‘parallel societies’ in Germany is usually backed up by pointing to several social problems which are not at all related to religion as such. One is that the migrants are said to refuse to learn and speak German. Plus “many of them live on state funds and don’t contribute to the German economy”, as Rouhs puts it.

Manfred Rouhs, Mosque opponent

These thoughts are by no means only found on the right fringe of German politics. Thilo Sarrazin, the former finance minister of the state of Berlin and a Social Democrat, strengthened these positions by complaining in a widely discussed interview last year that “a large number of Arabs and Turks in this city, whose numbers have grown thanks to the wrong policies, have no productive function except selling fruit and vegetables.” Although there was an outcry over his ‘racist’ provocations, he also received considerable support. 

Manfred Rouhs, mosque opponent 

Manfred Rouhs echoes Sarrazin’s views when he says, “I am not against globalization, but immigrants should be well trained and well educated. Why does that sort of people have to stay here forever? There must be a decision that either they integrate or go home.”

But why are such issues brought up by politicians in the debate about mosques? Rouhs answers that opposition to mosques gives politicians the only chance they have to address problems of integration, because in this case, permission is required from the authorities.

Bekir Alboga from DITIB also says that the debate about mosques and minarets is not only about religion. “Basically the debate is not honest”, says Alboga. “The racists are just picking up issues such as the veil or the minaret. Because they know they cannot get rid of the Muslims in Europe any more, they keep trying to find different ways to ridicule them.”

Alboga dismisses the talk of ‘parallel societies’ in Germany: “If you call us a ‘parallel society’, what else are churches, political parties, universities? Then they all are parallel societies!”

Speaking German

DITIB is one of the biggest Muslim organizations in Germany. Almost 900 local mosques are part of their network. DITIB was founded in 1984 and has close links with the Turkish government.

In DITIB mosques, most imams are trained in Turkey “because there were no facilities in German universities”, Alboga explains. “But within the next ten years, every DITIB imam will speak German.” He adds that since 2007 the Friday sermons in their mosques have been either bilingual, or the German translation is given as a handout to the faithful and published online. 

In any case, knowing German doesn’t seem to make things much easier: Even German-speaking imams face the same resistance, as the recent controversy about a new mosque for the Ahmediyya Muslims of Berlin demonstrated. The more than 30,000-strong Ahmediyya community in Germany, which is mostly made up by refugees from Pakistan, is exceptionally well trained and ‘integrated’ by the established benchmark: they speak German well, many have white-collar jobs and they are not a ‘burden’ for the economy.

Abdul Basit Tariq, the imam of the new mosque in Berlin-Pankow, had to do a Master’s degree in German language and literature for four years in Pakistan before he was sent to Germany. He gives his Friday sermons only in German. Nevertheless, there were massive protests against the new Berlin mosque, which ended up being built in an industrial area in East Berlin, far away from where the Ahmedis live.

The Berlin Ahmadiyya Mosque


A matter of perception

Everything is relative, and compared to the big cities in the UK and France, Germany doesn’t really have immigrants’ ghettos. The size of a mosque is also relative, says Bekir Alboga: “There are 120,000 Muslims in Cologne and our new mosque can only accommodate 1,200 of them. If you compare this to the main mosques in cities like Istanbul or Delhi, this is not a big mosque at all.”

Journalist and author Hasnain Kazim has just published a widely read book about his family’s immigration from Pakistan and their integration in Germany. 

“I sometimes wonder how childish these discussions are, when people say there shouldn’t be a mosque which is bigger than the church next to it”, he says. “Or people say we don’t want a mosque here because in Saudi Arabia, there is no church. Or because Christians are facing problems in, say, Pakistan.  I wonder why people choose Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as a reference. That is not the thing to measure yourself as an open, liberal society!”

Who is against immigrants?

When Kazim’s family came to Germany in the 1970s, the state made it difficult for them to stay, arguing that Germany was not an ‘Einwanderungsland’, a country for immigrants. But back then they received a lot of support from the local community and the church. They were lucky, Kazim believes:

“Germans are open, but especially when there are elections, conservative right-wing politicians gain popularity by raising very inflammatory slogans when it comes to immigration and integrating foreigners into German society. So I am not really sure how open this society is. It depends on who you interact with.”

Bekir Alboga has a different take on who is to blame for spreading anti-Muslim sentiments. He credits the German state for pro-Muslim policies such as the establishment of an official ‘Islam Conference’ in which representatives of Muslim organizations and the state discuss initiatives to establish Islamic education in schools and universities, for example.

“But the media attacked it right from the beginning. The society is split between the state policy, which is friendly towards Islam, and the media.” 

Between Islamophobia and enlightenment

Alboga sees those journalists who write against Muslims in a tradition of Islamophobia in Europe since medieval times. “In former times, these people would have become crusaders.”

DITIB has noticed an increase in Islamophobic incidents. “People send us pork parts and throw pork blood on our mosques. Something needs to be done against it!” 

But Alboga also acknowledges another strain of response in Germany, dating back to the enlightenment, when thinkers like Goethe and Lessing admired Islam. It is this tradition which inspired the Prussian king to build his mosque in Potsdam.

German attitudes toward Islam easily switch between both strands, between tolerance and Islamophobia. Bekir Alboga is concerned that post-9/11, even their traditional allies, the Christian churches have changed their stance towards Muslims. “Certain church leaders like Pope Benedict and the former head of the Protestant church in Germany, Wolfgang Huber, have defended Christian fundamentalists like the Society of Saint Pius X.

Avoiding the real questions

There are a lot of contradictions in the mosque controversy. On the one hand, critics demand that Muslims must be ‘integrated’ in Germany. But the more Muslims become visible as part of the German mainstream, the more they are seen as a ‘threat’. Do those who say ‘integration’ actually mean ‘assimilation’?

There are also blind spots in the debate. Whatever truth is in the argument about ‘parallel societies’, it can be seen both ways. The most vociferous opponents of ‘Islamization’ tend to be those who have never come across a Muslim – in Switzerland or in Germany. Their fears have been fed by second-hand ‘information’, not least from the media. If people don’t talk to their Muslim neighbours, how can this gap be bridged?

Then, there are the delusions. Given that Islam is going to be part of European culture, banning Islamic symbols is not going to solve anything. In fact, it will only harden stances on both sides. If minarets are not allowed in Switzerland, will this help Muslims integrate into Swiss society? If France bans burqas, will it help Muslim women to come out of the house?

And finally, as right-wing groups like ‘Pro Köln’ are planning a Europe-wide campaign against minarets together with like-minded parties such as the Swiss SVP, Austria’s FPÖ and Belgium’s ‘Vlaams Belang’, Europe’s insecurities become apparent. Europe has lost much of its economic influence over the last decades, and it is growing older. Both trends are set to continue. If Europe were stronger and more dynamic, would it still be scared of a minaret? Or would it be able to appreciate its beauty and present it proudly to an admiring audience, like the powerful King of Prussia?

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