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Measuring Kreuzberg’s mosque tolerance

Germans in several cities are complaining about plans to build new mosques, but Ben Knight finds it’s the integrated Muslims in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district eyeing a new house of worship there most sceptically.

Measuring Kreuzberg's mosque tolerance
Photo: DPA

Sitting in his makeshift office, Birol Ucan has developed an unshakable optimism for addressing the media.

At a time when many Germans seem increasingly hostile to Islam putting down roots in their country, this kind of attitude is probably necessary for the big-bellied spokesman of an obscure Arab organization building a new mosque in the heart of Berlin.

“We thought this room would make a good hairdresser’s,” he says, indicating the waist-high power sockets and the plumbing in the wall beside us. “We don’t have a tenant yet, but it’s cheaper to install fixtures in advance.”

This potential barbershop is one of the shop-fronts being installed on the ground floor of the shiny new Maschari Centre currently being built by the Islamic group al-Habash next to Görlitzer Bahnhof in Berlin’s multicultural Kreuzberg district.

Standing up, Ucan leads me along a glass corridor behind the retail spaces (soon to be a grocery store and a café, he promises) to the lobby, which, with its revolving door, wall-to-wall tiling and reception desk, would suit any mid-range hotel chain.

“Looks nice, doesn’t it?” Ucan remarks, before swinging a flabby arm towards the mosque itself, where a couple of builders look up from their circular saws in a cloud of fine building dust. “Mecca is that way,” he points to a large alcove taking up one corner of the hall. The mosque will host Sunni services, in Turkish and Arabic, despite al-Habash’s unique Arabic roots.

The majority of Muslims in Kreuzberg – and Germany – are Sunni Turks, but al-Habash is an eccentric presence not always welcome all over the Islamic world. Without a militia or a declared enmity to Israel, it is sometimes seen in the West as a peaceful influence in the Lebanon, its home country. But al-Habash is ostracized by many orthodox Muslims, who regard its mixture of Sunni and Shia doctrine and its idiosyncratic interpretation of the Koran as blasphemous.

But none of that can dampen Ucan’s upbeat outlook – he has six more floors to show me. They include various large function rooms – “for funerals or weddings” – and a roof terrace. Like most of the new mosques being built in Germany, this is a multi-functional community centre as much as a house of worship.

Germans have recently started grumbling publicly about the construction of these large, high-profile new mosques all over their country. There has been talk of “creeping Islamization” and the creation of “parallel societies.” The increasingly open insinuation is that shadowy Islamic groups with unaccounted-for wealth are bankrolling gaudy, unnecessary buildings in order to consciously colonize innocent, secular German communities.

Even the multi-functionalism of these buildings is seen as an attempt to draw Muslims away from the influence of western society and it’s often portrayed as nothing less than a conspiracy against the principles of Germany’s liberal democracy.

Ucan is aware of the prejudices and he takes unsolicited efforts to point out that his mosque will strive to lead young Muslims away from radical groups, “who are, unfortunately, also active in Berlin.” Anxiously heading off the expected criticisms, he talks of the German lessons that will be offered here and the architecture that is meant to blend with the Wilhelmine house next door.

This fretful reassurance is surprising, seeing that an unusual tolerance had settled over this structure since its construction began a few years ago. Where mosques in Cologne, Hamburg and in the eastern Berlin suburb of Pankow have provoked citizens’ initiatives and street demonstrations, this one has been allowed to quietly edge towards completion. Any kind of alarmist reaction has been noticeably muted, confined to a few complaints at public meetings.

Perhaps this relative harmony is linked to the new immigrant wealth blossoming in this corner of Kreuzberg – which is frequently called “Little Istanbul” because of its sizable Turkish population. But it’s not more Muslims who are moving here. Richer immigrants speaking English, French and Spanish are sprouting up under the neighbourhood’s café-awnings. Independent art galleries have elbowed room between Turkish bakeries and discount goods stores, and the scent of tapas and sushi now mingles with the smell of döner kebabs.

And so it’s perhaps odd to hear the new arrivals seem more tolerant of the mosque in their midst than some of the long-term Turkish residents.

Kadir Karabulut is a 28-year-old businessman and student who owns a café called Park only a block from the Maschari Centre. Opened this spring, Park has been trying to lure Kreuzberg’s eclectic mix of people with exclusive food, jazz trios and reasonable prices. He has an American girlfriend and is in the middle of an MA thesis in Jewish studies, making him potential poster boy for Kreuzberg’s relative success in integrating its Muslim residents.

And Karabulut has fully adopted two widespread German attitudes regarding integration. First, he has a weird distrust of something called “multicultural romanticism,” meaning he believes that cultural assimilation is necessary for society and that any other opinion is liberal naivety. Secondly, he suggests that religion is inherently an obstacle to integration.

“What bothers me is when Green voters tolerate very reactionary things in the middle of their society – like imams banning girls from sport lessons at school,” Karabulut says in response to questions about the new mosque down the street.

And he’s not the only secular Turk apparently taking a tougher line on the religious Muslisms in their midst than Kreuzberg’s bohemian Germans and other westerners.

Ahmet Iyidirli, a former Social Democratic candidate for the city parliament and a Berliner since 1975, offers a response worthy of Germany’s conservative bourgeoisie when he hears how eagerly Birol Ucan denied al-Habash had any radical religious tendencies.

“So he should be,” he says.

OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.

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