For years it has been Mohammed Cheppih’s dream: a “polder mosque”, where young Dutch Muslims can feel at home and express their own experience of religion. His project is soon to be launched in the Amsterdam suburb of Slotervaart.
Many young Dutch Muslims don’t feel at ease in the mosques attended by their parents and grandparents, which are often closely associated with a particular cultural group and country. Mohammed Cheppih calls them “homesickness mosques”. The Imams often don’t speak Dutch, preach in Arabic, and know nothing about Dutch society.
Sermons in Dutch
The mosque in Slotervaart, which will open informally in June, wants to offer young people an alternative. Dutch will be the language used in the mosque, also for sermons, says Mr Cheppih. Plus, the form of Islam will be free of cultural influences from other countries. The aim is to make it attractive to young people from a variety of cultural backgrounds, ranging from Moroccan and Turkish to Somali and Surinamese. Mr Cheppih is expecting young people from all over the country.
The mosque is to be more than just a place of worship, it will also host lectures and debates. Young people often find it hard to associate with their parent’s experience of religion and many young Dutch Muslims have gone adrift. They are looking for an Islam that connects with their experience of modern life in the Netherlands, and Mr Cheppih wants to help them.
“We want to provide information and guide young people in their search for a religious identity.”
He sees it as important that the mosque is entirely transparent and open to Dutch society. It even has a non-religious ethnically Dutch person on the board.
The project bears the clear hallmark of the Swiss-Egyptian theologian Tariq Ramadan, who was closely associated with the debate on Islam in Rotterdam. Mohammed Cheppih says he has been an important inspiration.
“Ramadan holds on to Islam on the one hand, but on the other hand he says, ‘You’ve got to move with the times, develop, learn.'”
It’s striking that Mr Cheppih should be inspired by Mr Ramadan, a reformist and fierce opponent of Salafism. For a long time Mr Cheppih, known in the Netherlands for radical statements in the media was sympathetic towards this fundamentalist tendency. However, Mr Cheppih sees no contradiction between the views he used to hold and those he holds today.
His past interest in fundamentalist Islam was part of the struggle that has made him what he is.
“For years I was taught by Salafists. I really learnt a lot. But I don’t like to cling to one particular group.”
The polder mosque’s house brand of Islam will be “mainstream”, a “consensus Islam” that emphasises similarities rather than differences. But the Mosque will also offer space for groups that hold views at the extreme ends of the spectrum, both reformists and Salafists. “In our project we identify most with the vision of someone like Tariq Ramadan. But Ramadan agrees with us that within a mosque like this, a Salafist and a Muslim Brother will also be welcome.” Mr Cheppih thinks it’s important that the mosque remains independent. He doesn’t want to accept funds from anyone, from sponsors in the Middle East or the Dutch government. He hopes to be able to finance the project by renting out the bottom floor of the building to small businesses.
Men and women
In the polder mosque, says Mohammed Cheppih, men and women will pray together, with men at the front and women at the back and no division between them. The usual practice of men and women praying in separate rooms, he asserts, isn’t based on anything in the Qur’an.
“It’s a typical example of cultural influence on religion. There isn’t a lawyer in the entire history of Islam who says that men and women aren’t allowed to pray together.” Like the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, the role of Imam in leading a prayer is still reserved for men.