Travel + Leisure

April 2006, Travel + Leisure

Culture Clash

All across Europe, the controversial construction of new mosques is raising questions about aesthetics and assimilation, faith and tolerance—and liberal democracy itself.

One of Europe’s largest mosques is rising over Rotterdam, and many residents are none too pleased. Its ornamented façade and arched windows appear transplanted from afar, and in fact the design was inspired by mosques in Cairo and Dubai. At a recent ceremony marking the start of the mosque’s construction, Mayor Ivo Opstelten complained that Muslims had ignored official calls to downsize the structure. “Faith is sometimes expressed more by reserved rather than explicit dissemination,” he said. The municipal government is indignant that the minarets of the new Essalaam mosque will loom as high as the lighted towers atop the nearby Feyenoord soccer stadium, the scene of major European athletic competitions. “It’s an ugly, marble thing,” says former deputy mayor Marco Pastors, describing the Oriental-style domed mosque where 1,200 people will pray. “It’s a bit of kitsch.”

New mosques are being planned, developed, or built in many major European cities, including—in addition to Rotterdam—Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Munich, Cologne, Berlin, Strasbourg, Athens, and Granada. In each case, the projects have been highly controversial. Ever since Iran’s 1989 fatwa condemning Salman Rushdie to death for his portrayal of Islam in the novel The Satanic Verses, debate about the compatibility of European political principles and values with Islam has escalated. Anxieties mounted after 9/11 and when Islamist fanatics bombed the London subway last July. In recent months, tensions over Islam have become even more pitched since European newspapers published caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, which sparked violent attacks on embassies and other institutions by Muslims in several countries. In the process, these new European mosques have become a lightning rod for criticism amid concern that they may help foment political extremism and erode local cultural traditions.

Even more than the head scarves worn by Islamic women and girls, the new mosques signal an expanding Muslim presence in European urban centers. Islam is Europe’s fastest growing religion—Muslims number 20 million—within increasingly secular societies where religion has lost public prominence.

Until recently, many Islamic places of worship in Europe were for the most part invisible, hidden away in basement apartments, garages, old schools, and abandoned factories and warehouses. (A few cities like Paris and London did build major mosques earlier in the 20th century.) Now Muslim communities have outgrown these smaller spaces and are seeking to implant domes and minarets in cities previously marked mainly by churches, staking a claim to an enduring presence in Europe. “They want to show they are here,” says Wilfried van Winden, the Dutch architect of the $5 million Essalaam mosque.

Across the continent, responses have been hostile. In Italy, members of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling coalition have proposed a law to effectively block construction of mosques because of concern they may be used to “spread hatred for the West.” Dutch populist parliamentarian Geert Wilders has called mosques “palaces of hatred,” and in France a newly created national body is to monitor the construction of mosques. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meanwhile, has vowed to close mosques and deport clerics deemed to foster violence.

“Some people fear Muslims will take over the country,” says Marianne Vorthoren, a policy advisor for SPIOR, the umbrella organization of Muslim groups in Rotterdam. “They feel intimidated.”

In addition to halting some of the construction altogether, officials throughout Europe are pushing hard to influence the appearance of mosques—which often recall the traditional architecture of the immigrants’ native lands—and are urging Muslim communities to opt for a more transparent architecture for their buildings. “Some mosques in Europe are very closed, and the whole building tells you, ‘Don’t come in here,’ ” says Copenhagen’s deputy mayor, Bo Asmus Kjeldgaard. “And then you see others that are more modern and open, where the architecture shows you it’s a mosque that wants a dialogue with the society. This is the kind of mosque I hope we’ll get.”

Indeed, the visibility of the new mosques—their potential to dominate European cityscapes—is at the crux of the furor they are causing. The Greek government’s plan to build a mosque for the tens of thousands of Muslims who live in Athens has been repeatedly delayed, in part because of worry by local authorities that it would be too obvious to visitors landing at Athens International Airport. Rotterdam’s new mosque stands on a key roadway near the soccer stadium. “It is on an important route into our city, in a place very visible to many people who come to Rotterdam,” says former deputy mayor Pastors, who was forced out of office last fall after making a series of remarks hostile to Muslims. “This is a mosque that a lot of people do not want in this form.”

In London, an Islamic missionary group is proposing a futuristic design for a massive mosque it wants to build next to where the 2012 Olympic Games will take place. The planned building would hold 40,000 worshippers and calls for wind turbines instead of traditional minarets and a translucent latticed roof in place of a dome. Meanwhile, a six-story mosque seating 10,000 worshippers has been open since June 2004 in the Whitechapel area of London. “That the largest Islamic house of worship in Great Britain is already more than three times as big as the largest Christian counterpart speaks volumes about the spirit and ambition of British Muslims,” says Daniel Pipes, an author and activist who writes about militant Islamism. He warns that, left unchecked, its proponents will impose their beliefs on others.

“This takeover of the iconography of a city by Islamic culture is a very sensitive issue,” says Juliette Bekkering, an architect who has served on a Rotterdam city committee on mosque design. After Rotterdam’s first purpose-built mosque—the Mevlana—opened in 2001, Pastors sought to prevent the Essalaam mosque from going up (it had been approved by the city government prior to his election); when that failed, he tried to convince the congregation to lower the minarets and build a single sanctuary for both men and women—barred by Islamic ritual. Calling for Muslims to adhere to Dutch values, he has provocatively vowed that the first mosque where the two sexes pray together would be the first allowed to construct a minaret higher than 300 feet.

In the nineties, Dutch authorities saw mosques as icons of a flourishing multicultural society, and a small number of them were built. But today politicians criticize these often exuberant structures as “homesick mosques” built by outsiders longing for their countries of origin. “The political landscape has turned around,” says University of Amsterdam political scientist Marcel Maussen. Last year’s murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh—his throat was slit by a Muslim enraged at van Gogh’s portrayal of Islam—sharply curtailed tolerance for Islam, bringing calls for a halt to immigration.

Foreign funding for some of the mosques has also exacerbated opposition to them. Saudi Arabia is paying for the mosque in Athens, while a foundation run by the ruling family of Dubai is bankrolling the Rotterdam project. “I prefer that we remain independent of foreign funds since foreign funding brings influence for the sponsor,” says Imam Fatih Alev of Copenhagen, warning that Saudi support could entail propagation of a militant Islam hostile to other religions and Western ideals.

“When people wake up and see a mosque they assume this is an Islamic invasion,” says Imam Ahmed Abu-Laban of Copenhagen. “But if the central mosque project comes to life, it will give our young kids a feeling of self-respect.” In the midst of the violent anti-European demonstrations by Muslims in February (it was a Copenhagen newspaper that first published the caricatures of Muhammad), Danish leaders and a prominent former newspaper editor stepped up calls for state support of a new mosque in the Danish capital. Praising their efforts as “a gesture of goodwill and kindness,” Abu-Laban adds, “For the second generation of immigrants to go to a normal mosque in the heart of Copenhagen will be in the end a direct recognition that they are welcome.”

In Rotterdam, some veteran civil servants share this point of view as well. Maaike Groen, a municipal urban planner who devoted several years to finding new sites for many of the city’s 30 or so unobtrusive mosques, argues that they can play an important role in helping to eliminate ethnic ghettos. “More and more mosques are giving Dutch lessons to immigrants, offering women child-rearing classes, as well as teaching computer skills to youths,” she says.

The hope that mosques might influence young Muslims is also at work in Strasbourg, where a gigantic new mosque has been designed by the Italian architect Paolo Portoghesi (he also drew up a monumental mosque completed in Rome in 1995). City authorities threatened to thwart official support for the project if Islamic leaders failed to crack down on delinquency among Muslim youth—a requirement that followed a spate of anti-Semitic violence. Referring to local Muslims, regional Jewish leader Pierre Lévy told French radio: “There’s a need to prove they are capable of integrating and respecting all religions. One cannot demand emblems without showing one is also prepared to respect others.”

To avoid a protracted conflict with Dutch authorities, the Turkish Islamic community in Amsterdam has taken an unusual—and possibly hopeful—approach in designing its ambitious new mosque complex, which it calls the Westermoskee. Significantly, mosque leaders say the name stems not only from its location in the city but also from their stance toward Western civilization. The design aims to integrate the building with its environs architecturally, using red brick and blending Ottoman motifs with elements derived from the work of H. P. Berlage, a leading early Modernist Dutch architect. The $38 million complex, which includes apartments, stores, and housing for the elderly, is being constructed as a joint venture with a private developer.

The fact that its architects, Marc and Nada Breitman of Paris, are Jewish has provoked dismay among some Islamic groups in the Netherlands, according to one of the mosque’s leaders, Üzeyir Kabaktepe. “Why brick, and why Jews as architects?” are questions he says he is frequently asked by other Muslim communities.

Likening the design of Rotterdam’s new mosque to “Ali Baba’s paradise,” Kabaktepe stakes out different territory for the Amsterdam project. “We want to be a model of integration” for other Muslim communities in Europe, he says. “It must not be a building that is dominant and a symbol of Islam. It has to be a building whose style is accepted by the majority of the municipality, not just a symbol for the religion but a symbol for accepting all mankind.”