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New European Mosques

Roland Halbe The recently built Mevlana mosque, in Rotterdam.

Photo: Roland Halbe

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."

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