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In Germany, suspicion follows growing Muslim population

Chicago Tribune / Knight Ridder Tribune, USA
Apr. 21, 2004
Tom Hundley
www.twincities.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Friday April 23, 2004

BERLIN – (KRT) – In the converted loft that serves as his studio, architect Mehmet Bayram unrolls the blueprints that give form to the new demographic reality of the German capital.

Bayram has no less than eight new mosque projects on his drawing board.

“It’s better to call them cultural centers since only about 25 percent of the floor space is for the mosque,” he tells a visitor.

Whatever one chooses to call them, they are brick-and-mortar markers of a changing urban landscape. Germany’s 3 million Muslims – second only to France among West European nations – are making their presence felt in ways that not all Germans find reassuring.

The past decade has witnessed a surge in the number of mosques across Germany and other European countries. Germany has about 2,400 mosques, but more significantly, Germany’s mosques have been emerging from nondescript storefronts and inconspicuous basements into more visible and recognizable quarters.

Last year the number of mosques readily identifiable as such by domes and crescent-topped minarets nearly doubled from 77 to 141, according to the German Central Islam Archive, a research group. Most of the mosques serve Germany’s large Turkish population.

“I personally feel it is important that mosques get out of the backyards and into the open,” said Gunter Piening, who heads the Berlin city office that deals with integration and migration issues.

“If a group builds a mosque, it shows a will for integration. When people build their house of God, it means they feel at home,” he said.

But other public officials and many ordinary Germans worry that the elaborate new mosques will turn Muslim communities inward and give encouragement to fundamentalists and radicals.

“The mainstream opinion in this country is still influenced by Sept. 11,” said Stefanie Vogelsang, deputy mayor of the Berlin borough of Neukoelln.

She was referring to the fact that Mohamed Atta and the al-Qaida cell that carried out the Sept. 11 terror attacks hatched their plans in a Hamburg mosque.

Those anxieties were heightened in the wake of the Madrid train bombings last month. German media recently reported that an apparent al-Qaida cell operating out of a small Neukoelln mosque was planning an attack a year ago with a bomb nearly identical in design to the ones used in Madrid. Police foiled the plot and arrested the ringleader, a Tunisian national. Also, Spanish police last month arrested a Moroccan resident of Darmstadt, Germany, as a suspect in the Madrid bombings.

Neukoelln, one of Berlin’s most ethnically diverse districts, has a Muslim population of 75,000. In some of its neighborhoods, according to Vogelsang, the number of foreigners enrolled in schools has risen to 98 percent, even though many of the “foreigners” have German passports.

Vogelsang said she had observed a dramatic increase in the number of women wearing headscarves over the past three or four years and said she feared that mosques were creating a kind of parallel society outside the German mainstream.

“I support the idea of bringing the mosques out of the backyard, but these people have to respect that Germany’s roots are Christian,” she said.

“Everybody in Germany has the right to pursue happiness in his own way. You can have sex with whom you want and practice religion as you like,” she said. “But the goal of these Islamic fundamentalists is to use the legal ways of our democratic country to actually do away with liberalism and democracy.”

Three of the new mosques that Bayram has designed are planned for Neukoelln, but Vogelsang, who oversees building projects in the borough, says she will block construction until she receives more information on who is funding the projects.

Piening, the immigration official, agreed that the source of funding was a legitimate concern.

“It’s not easy to define who is behind each individual project. This is where transparency is required. It has to be similar to the Catholic Church or Protestant Church,” he said.

But he also worried that there was a “xenophobic aspect” to some of the objections concerning the new mosques.

“It has become clear that some people do not want visible Islam to be integrated into the architecture of the city … (and) the effect of this is that the Muslim community will draw back into itself and not integrate,” he said.

One of the most impressive new mosques in Berlin is found in a parklike area of Neukoelln adjacent to an old Turkish cemetery. With its distinctive dome and towering minarets, it is a replica of the 18th century Ottoman mosques found throughout Turkey.

Tarkan Akarsu, an engineer who donated his services to the nearly finished project, said the construction was paid for entirely by the Turkish community of Germany. Akarsu is an immigrant from Turkey who came to Berlin 13 years ago.

Bayram, the architect, was not involved in this project, and his praise is only polite.

“It’s very nice, a unique thing for Berlin. People don’t have to travel to Istanbul anymore to see Ottoman architecture. They can see it here in Berlin,” he said.

Bayram’s designs attempt to integrate with the existing urban landscape.

“The idea is that these buildings are not just for religious purposes but for social and cultural purposes also. I see them as a bridge between two cultures,” he said.

Bayram, 41, who immigrated to Germany from Turkey when he was 10, said that moving mosques out of the shadows would foster a sense of self-confidence and belonging among Berlin’s 220,000 Muslims.

“Their identification won’t be with their (previous) nationality; it will be a healthy, self-confident identification with Islam,” he said.

“My theory is that every immigrant, sooner or later, gets into this conflict of two cultures. If he knows where he comes from, knows his identity, then I think it is much easier to present himself in the host culture.”

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