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Minarets Rise in Germany - LA Times, USA

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  • Zafar Khan
    Minarets Rise in Germany * A surge in the building of mosques is another sign of the transforming power of immigration. But the Islamic centers of faith also
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 18, 2004
      Minarets Rise in Germany
      * A surge in the building of mosques is another sign
      of the transforming power of immigration. But the
      Islamic centers of faith also prompt fear.
      By Jeffrey Fleishman, Times Staff Writer


      BERLIN — The chink and scrape of stonecutters echo
      through the gray-domed mosque that rises like a
      glimmer of misplaced architecture in a city where the
      Muslim call to prayer is a widening whisper.

      Dusted in marble, workmen scurry in the muted glow of
      stained glass. Some paint Koranic verses on the walls;
      others make last-minute alterations to golden-tipped
      minarets pricking a drizzly skyline. Anxious Berliners
      sometimes peek into the courtyard, where Ali Gulcek, a
      husky, nimble man, assures them his religion is not a

      "I need to enlighten the Germans so their prejudice of
      Islam will go away," said Gulcek, whose Islamic
      organization is building the mosque. "Our mosque will
      be completed in May. We've wanted a legitimate mosque
      for so long. For years, we've been meeting in
      backyards and basements. We don't want to hide

      Gulcek's mosque is part of the surge in Islamic
      construction sweeping Germany. The number of
      traditional mosques with their distinctive minarets
      nearly doubled in Germany from 77 in 2002 to 141 in
      2003, according to Islam Archive, a Muslim research
      group in the city of Soest. An additional 154 mosques
      and cultural centers are planned, many of them in the
      countryside, where vistas are dotted with symbols of
      crescent moons and crosses.

      Like the cultural battles over allowing Muslim women
      to wear headscarves in European schools, mosques are
      an indication that immigration is transforming social,
      religious and aesthetic landscapes. Staccato Turkish
      and throaty Arabic syllables whirl amid European
      vernaculars, and where once there was a German bakery
      there is now a Moroccan kebab stand. In some
      bookshops, the Koran is as prominent as the Bible, and
      Islamic worry beads sometimes rattle alongside

      Mosques are landmarks of faith. But in Europe they are
      also symbols of change that can instigate fear,
      especially as congregations at Christian churches
      steadily decline on a continent with the fastest-aging
      population in the world. A mosque often means a
      neighborhood is no longer what it was. Skin hues are
      darker, customs different, and society's failure at
      integration is laid bare.

      For many Europeans since Sept. 11, mosques are
      perceived — unlike churches or synagogues — as
      caldrons of radicalism instead of places of worship.
      That sentiment is likely to endure if Islamic
      militants were involved last week's train bombings in
      Madrid that killed 201 people and wounded 1,500

      "Building a mosque won't create integration," said
      Werner Mueller, a pharmacist in a Berlin neighborhood
      where proposals for two mosques are encountering
      opposition from government agencies. "These new
      mosques will make Islam more visible, and jobless and
      angry Muslim men will go to them. They can become
      places infiltrated by political Islam."

      Such sensitivity stems from the Al Quds mosque's link
      to Sept. 11: Mohamed Atta and other hijackers had
      regularly worshipped at the warren of rooms above a
      gym with smudged windows in Hamburg before they moved
      to the United States. Thousands of nondescript
      mosques, some tucked in alleys, others half-hidden in
      old factories, are scattered across Europe. There are
      nearly 2,400 in Germany alone, according to the Islam

      The Berlin government is seeking more control over
      blueprints for larger mosques. The city's planning
      office wants veto power on all building projects that
      may impinge upon a borough's character. The veto
      proposal is expected to take effect this year and
      could complicate plans for four mosques in the city
      boroughs of Kreuzberg and Neukoelln. The government
      says it is not singling out mosques, but trying to
      bring uniformity to the skyline.

      "Berlin has a large Turkish population," said Petra
      Reetz, a spokeswoman for the planning office. "That
      always has to be a consideration. But we are still a
      Central European town and we'd like to keep the face
      of a Central European town, not a Turkish town."

      Such sentiments have made Mehmet Bayram a patient
      architect. The projects he treasures most, including
      mosques and Islamic cultural centers, are yet to be
      built, tangled in negotiations with government
      agencies. Bayram splices architecture, folding Islamic
      nuances into European designs to make Muslim edifices
      more palatable to the German eye. What could be
      considered minarets on the facade of one of his
      proposed cultural centers, for example, are instead
      spiraling stairwells.

      Bayram described one project like this: "The main
      entrance gate has a European style, and on the third
      floor you will find Gothic arches. That is Christian
      architecture. The dome has a Turkish-Seldshuk form,
      and the little arches at the upper minarets are of
      Indian style…. It is my intent that the building's
      street level invites visitors to overcome their fears"
      about Islam.

      Gulcek's mosque is being built south of the city
      center by the Turkish Islamic Union, one of several
      Islamic organizations in Germany overseeing
      construction plans for such projects. Most of
      Germany's 3 million Turks — the nation's largest
      minority — belong to the lineage of guest workers who
      began arriving here in the 1950s to fuel post-World
      War II reconstruction. This history has made the Turks
      more entrenched and better organized to finance and
      build mosques than newly arrived Muslims in other
      European nations.

      Gulcek, a German citizen, moved to Berlin with his
      parents 24 years ago from the Turkish city of Kayseri.
      One recent day, as rain fell and the stonecutters
      sipped tea, Gulcek walked through the courtyard of the
      new mosque, where a cemetery faced Mecca and the hum
      of traffic drifted over the surrounding brick wall.

      "It's taken 13 years to build," said Gulcek, a
      smiling, yet exasperated, diplomat of sorts between
      cultures. "The biggest problem was raising money from
      Berlin Muslims. Then we found out our minarets were
      too high, and we had to raise more money for a
      $100,000 fine from the borough. Why? It came down to a
      misunderstanding. We didn't know about German law, and
      the borough didn't tell us.

      "It was difficult to explain our idea of the mosque to
      the Germans. We should have explained it better," he
      said. "If you communicate, there are fewer problems,
      but there always seems to be a lace curtain between
      Germans and Muslims. Europeans have a prejudice and a
      fear of change."

      Communication often seems impossible. Mosque proposals
      throughout the continent have met with opposition
      petition drives and street protests. Many mosques and
      their Islamic clergy exist in parallel, almost
      sequestered spheres from the larger European

      "The main problem with integrating mosques into German
      society is that many mullahs and imams are coming from
      Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries," said
      Lydia Nofal, manager of Inssan, a multicultural
      organization battling with government agencies to
      build a 65,000-square-foot mosque and community center
      in Berlin. "One of our main goals is to get Islamic
      leaders from Germany so they know the language and the

      Navigating the sensitivities of race and religion can
      be difficult. On Sunday mornings, church bells peal
      throughout Europe's towns and cities. But in many
      mosques, the Muslim call to prayer, which in the
      Middle East crackles over loudspeakers atop minarets,
      is almost hushed. The devout check their watches for
      prayer times, and quietly kneel.

      The mosque building boom, mirroring the growth of an
      Islamic population in Europe that has doubled over the
      last decade to between 13 million and 15 million, may
      be most pronounced in Germany. But France, home to
      Europe's largest Islamic community, has 49 traditional
      mosques, including nine large ones in Paris. The
      estimated number of mosques in Britain — most of them
      converted buildings, apartments or prayer rooms with
      no minarets — has jumped from 613 in 1996 to about
      1,000 today.

      In Berlin's Kreuzberg borough, on a street scented
      with skewered lamb and spices and flecked with women
      wearing head scarves, Heidemarie Weigand and her
      husband, Hans-Juergen, were having a
      going-out-of-business sale at their toy train store.
      Heidemarie said her old customers had died or moved
      away and few newcomers were buying engines and
      cabooses these days.

      "There's so many Turkish faces. There are hardly any
      Germans here, and the foreigners have no use for
      trains," said Heidemarie, her graying hair brushed
      back over a mauve sweater. "Many Germans aren't happy
      about the mosques. I don't think Turkey would like it
      if we went there and built a bunch of Christian

      A few doors down, Burhan Kesici, a soft-spoken man
      with a round face and a thin beard, sat in a green
      leather chair and spoke of the mosques his Islamic
      Federation in Berlin hoped to build. He believes in
      integration, he said, and even went against the wishes
      of his Turkish parents and wife by becoming a German
      citizen. Kesici understands the sensitivities that
      arise as Islamic culture deepens its imprint on

      "There are a lot of new Islamic projects in the
      Kreuzberg-Neukoelln area," Kesici said. "The Germans
      may be saying, 'This is dangerous for us. There's too
      much of a concentration of religion in a small area.'
      But we Muslims have to be seen as normal. The mosques
      will allow us to show ourselves off better to society.
      We can help with the crime and social problems in
      these neighborhoods."

      The Islamic Federation represents 26 Islamic
      organizations and 12 of Berlin's 75 mosques — only
      three of which have minarets. The federation, Kesici
      said, is in the midst of tedious negotiations with
      Kreuzberg borough on the design of a $4.9-million
      mosque and community center project. The government
      wants the federation to shrink the mosque by 40% so it
      will not overwhelm the neighborhood.

      "The world is changing," said Kesici, who has a
      political science degree from the Free University of
      Berlin. "The European Union is expanding, and people
      are living with different cultures. I am a German and
      a Muslim. But the head scarf and mosque issues are
      showing us they don't want to accept our values.
      They're saying, 'You can be German, but a second-class
      German.' "

      Kesici's dream mosque, designed by architect Bayram,
      may remain a blueprint for several more years.
      Gulcek's mosque is stone and steel and colored-glass
      reality. It will open in two months. Christians and
      Jews and even secularists will be invited.

      "Fifty years ago when the Turks first came," Gulcek
      said, "they went from their dormitory to the job and
      back to their dormitory. They would never have
      imagined that one day a mosque would be built here.
      And now Turkish businessmen have German employees. So
      I can imagine that in another 50 years names like
      Ahmed and Mehmet may sound natural to the German ear
      and one day may be even sitting in Parliament."

      Times staff writers Petra Falkenberg in Berlin and
      Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris and special correspondent
      Bruce Wallace in London contributed to this report.

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