Debate on New Mosque Buildings

Too Weak to Bear outside Influence?

The frequent resistance against the construction of mosques in Germany derives from many sources: an instable German identity, cultural and religious insecurity, and fear of Islam, perceived as a threat. An essay by Salomon Korn

Salomon Korn (photo: AP)
Salomon Korn, architect and Vice President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany: "Where would we be if Western values and legislation were reduced to a reflection of the behaviour of dictatorships and theocracies?"

​​ A mosque in an Alpine pasture? Admittedly, that would be an unusual sight – and for many people, it is so inconceivable that they are attempting to prevent it with all their might. In the Austrian province of Carinthia, for example, laws against "unusual" architecture have been passed to ban the construction of mosques, Italy has held plebiscites, and Switzerland has its own initiative against minarets. And feeling runs just as high in Germany when it comes to building Islamic prayer, meeting and teaching sites.

Where there are no reasonable objections to be had or reservations go unsaid, opponents often resort to building regulations. Beyond such endeavours, there are certainly objective reasons against the construction of characteristic buildings from other cultures, including mosques, in certain regions. In cultural regions such as the Alps, which have grown organically over many centuries, specific characteristics have formed in the appearance and architecture of the towns and villages, their folk music and traditional dress. The unique nature of these phenomena cannot be simply altered or translocated. A Black Forest house on the Algarve would be just as disconcerting as a Scandinavian wooden church in Saudi Arabia.

Yet from a long-term perspective, Shelley's observation that "nought may endure but mutability" it is also true of culture, and enrichment grows out of mutual influences and cross-fertilisation. How many of us still know and think of an Oriental origin when we see onion domes or bulbous cupolas on religious or other buildings? Such borrowings are not limited to individual architectural elements or restricted regions.

Stylistic diversity "from the treasure chests of the Orient"

photo: dpa
Vienna's famous Karlskirche - a "Turkish mosque" in the cityscape - is not the only example of oriental influences in European architecture

​​ In his study of Islamic influences in Viennese architecture, Claudius Caravias revealed the great stylistic diversity "from the treasure chests of the Orient" that has entered Occidental design. The most evident example is Vienna's Karlskirche. Its creator, the baroque master builder Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, consciously imposed the church onto the Viennese cityscape in the form of a "Turkish mosque" after the Austrian victory over the Turkish siege in 1683. It was no coincidence that he chose a cupola, typical of mosque buildings, and two over-dimensioned pillars flanking the church's portal.

This structural motif, reminiscent of Solomon's Temple, is the same as that of the Constantinople mosque with its minarets. The pillars bear the crown and orb from the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, symbolising his victory over Islam, which had been a military threat to Europe for centuries.

Naturally enough, the Viennese and the city's visitors do not perceive the Karlskirche as a "Turkish mosque", and nor do they generally notice elements once typical of ornate Turkish war tents decorating the roofs of numerous palaces and official buildings, first and foremost Belvedere Palace. Elements of Islamic architecture, arabesques and tendril ornaments can be found throughout the former Austro-Hungarian monarchy, in the Balkans, in the area once under Venetian rule, on the Iberian Peninsula and in the Mediterranean region. Having been an established part of the visual vocabulary of European design for centuries, they are seen as equally familiar as numerous long-integrated Islamic influences in western science, art and culture.

Ambivalent relationship between the Orient and Occident

Nevertheless, the relationship between the Orient and the Occident remains ambivalent from the European point of view. Throughout their long history of wars, Christians and Muslims each regarded the other side as aggressive conquerors. The onslaught of the Islamic armies on Europe began in 711 with the Umayyad conquest of Hispania.

The European Crusade (image: historic lithograph)
The Third Crusade (1189 to 1192), depicted here in a calendar, set out to recapture Jerusalem. Many of these wars and crusades against Muslims play a key role in the European collective memory

​​ The battles, wars and military campaigns of the subsequent centuries have become rooted in the European collective memory. Emblematic examples are the Battle of Tours (732), the capture of Jerusalem by the Seljuks (1071) that prompted the First Crusade (1096), the Battles of Kosovo (1389, 1402 and 1448), the fall of Constantinople (1453), the Battle of Lepanto (1571), the expansion of the Ottoman Empire to the Balkans and the Mediterranean region, and the threat to Vienna for over 150 years (1529 to 1683).

In comparison with the Islamic countries, Europe was culturally, economically and militarily underdeveloped, inferior and usually in the defensive over hundreds of years. Martin Luther's 1529 writings "On War against the Turk" and "Military Sermon against the Turks" testify to this situation, as does his hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God", originally composed as a battle song against the Ottoman invaders.

It was not least fear of Islam that led European scholars to study and research the religion from an early point. This fear was joined by fascination, prompted by Marco Polo's travel writing and the descriptions provided by pilgrims, monks, crusaders and explorers such as Jehan de Mandeville, Felix Fabri, Wilhelm von Rubruk, Hans Schiltberger and Niccolò di Conti. Through their reception as arcane, rare and exotic, all things Oriental gained a suggestive, even hypnotic attraction for Europe. And the more spices, medicines and tales fed the fantasies of the Orient as a place of desire, the more it mutated into an imaginary place of refuge full of mythical freedoms, which real life with its famines, wars, disease and epidemics was unable to offer.

Escape to the "land of illusions"

One fine example of these tendencies towards escape to the "land of illusions" is the landscape gardens first laid out in eighteenth-century England and then copied throughout Europe. With their Chinese pagodas, Egyptian tombs and Turkish mosques, they conjure visitors into exotic worlds far removed from the harsh reality of life in Europe. A growing body of illustrated publications, travel writing and descriptions provided European master builders, painters and writers with a wealth of material on the history, architecture and customs of Islamic cultures.

Karl May (photo: dpa)
Catering to the desire for escapism in art and literature in the age of industrialisation: Karl May, one of the best selling German writers of all time, noted for books set in the Orient and Middle East

​​Thus, the images of an imaginary Orient became firmly established in the course of the nineteenth century, catering more intensively than ever to the desire for escapism in art and literature in the age of industrialisation and fast-transforming societies. The leading proponents were people like Jean-Léon Gérôme, Gustav Bauernfeind, David Roberts, Arthur Rimbaud, Richard Burton and Karl May, to name but a few examples.

Eastern promise staged by architectural means was particularly intended to guarantee the business success of enterprises of a profane and pleasurable character, such as coffee houses, pleasure parks, steam baths and other leisure facilities, as neo-Islamic styles were regarded as magnificent, colourful and luxurious. Even aristocratic summer residences and official buildings were often built in oriental styles, for instance the mosque at Schwetzingen Palace (1795), the Royal Pavilion in Brighton (1822), the Wilhelma in Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt (1846), the Arabic Café in Düsseldorf (1895) and Copenhagen's Tivoli (1902).

Not to forget the numerous "Oriental scenes" presented at the world exhibitions, which made Islamifying construction, styles and decorative elements far more familiar to the eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europeans than they are to many of us today.

This also goes for the public perception of the numerous synagogues built in neo-Islamic styles, mainly in Germany and Austria, from the mid-nineteenth century on (Leipzig 1855, Vienna 1858, Berlin 1866, Nuremberg 1874, Kaiserslautern 1886, Pforzheim 1893). Yet even though the general public was familiar with exotic constructions in the age of historicism, there was no lack of controversy over the building of synagogues with an Oriental appearance. The arguments were by no means restricted to critical artistic objections, and are thus rather reminiscent of current debates over new mosques in Germany and Austria.

Synagogues in Germany

As there has never been either a "Jewish" form of architecture or a particular building style unique to synagogues, the German Jews mainly built their temples in two styles in the course of their emancipation. By using a neo-Romanesque design vocabulary based on medieval churches, Jews made a public profession of belonging to Germany, at the same time exposing themselves to the criticism that they were denying their origins and distinctive character. They built synagogues in the neo-Islamic style whenever they wanted to avoid such accusations by confidently emphasising their Judaism as a religion of its own with roots in the Orient.

Source: Wikipedia
Nationalist historian and politician Heinrich von Treitschke: "Germans are too weak to bear outside influences"

​​However, this style ran the architectural risk of emphasising the alien, optically isolating synagogues from the surrounding buildings through their exotic appearance, and thus also marginalising Jews as "un-German". Despite their willingness to adapt, the German Jews' desire to see their religion recognised as a belief on an equal footing and to no longer be regarded as an alien nation remained unfulfilled.

Nor did the turn away from oriental-style synagogues towards contemporary style as an expression of the German Jews' will for integration into the Christian majority society in the early twentieth century bring them the recognition as Germans that they longed for. In the nineteenth century, intensifying nationalism as a result of the Napoleonic Wars had increasingly restricted understanding for other ways of life in Germany, compounding the problem.

By its very definition, nationalism depends on excluding anything alien or considered as such, so as to draw clear divisions along supposedly national lines. Where there was a glorification of Medieval Christianity and Germanic sagas such as during the Romantic period, there was no room for Jews. It was the nationalist historian and politician Heinrich von Treitschke who noted during the 1879 anti-Semitism dispute that the Germans were too weak to bear outside influences – aptly defining one fundamental cause of the gulf between the Christian Germans of the time and the Jews whom they regarded as alien, and still applicable to a certain extent to today's Muslims.

Synagogues: "alien", but not a threat

Even in the age of historicism and orientalism, the public consciousness never perceived neo-Islamic synagogues as a German form of architecture, although they symbolised a bridge between Jewish religious independence and the unreserved profession of belonging to the German fatherland. In contrast to today's new mosques, synagogues were regarded as "alien", but not as a threat. Those temple buildings with external oriental-style décor – the basic structure was always "European" – tended to awaken envy, ill will and insecurity rather than fears, distrust or suspicions. They never entered the European collective memory as buildings of a conquering religion threatening Europe over centuries.

Ahmadiyya Mosque in Berlin, Germany (photo: dpa)
"The resistance against new mosque buildings arising in many places could have the added function of a defence by proxy against the weakness of Christian faith"

​​The exoticism that once surrounded neo-Islamic synagogues, a source of both curiosity and unease, has also now mutated to a source of distrust and fear at today's mosques in Germany. At most, the Orient as an imaginary place of refuge is only present in memory, art and literature. Reporting on natural catastrophes, famines and social and hygienic conditions has displaced the romanticised perceptions and ideals of the Orient for all time. From the Western perspective, the former imaginary place of refuge has become a place of horror in many regions: its perceived characteristics are terrorism, fanaticism and an unbridled will to conquer.

Increasingly, this altered image is also determining the perception and assessment of Islam and the mosques that represent it. The more alien and threatening Islam appears – ignoring the diversity and pluralism within the faith itself – the less the non-Muslim section of society perceives mosques as buildings that could ever be integrated into the cityscape. This view is fostered by fears of disintegration of the "Christian West" as it leans towards growing indifference to religious issues, in the light of an Islam presenting a more and more confident face.

Hence, the resistance against new mosque buildings arising in many places could have the added function of a defence by proxy against the weakness of Christian faith; in secular form, the resistance could be interpreted as an expression of an unstable German identity and increasing cultural insecurity. Fear of mosques and minarets would thus also equate to fear of the public materialisation of such weaknesses and doubts.

Islam's visibility in Europe

Christianity is after all on the retreat in Islamic countries, while Islam is on the advance in the West. However, this is not the doing of the Muslims living here in Europe. Just as Christians around the world do not bear responsibility for the decisions of the Vatican, Jews as a whole cannot be held responsible for the policies of the state of Israel, and nor can Muslims in Europe and elsewhere for those of their countries of origin.

For this reason alone, no form of reciprocity can be permissible, not even the commonly heard demand that the same number of mosques should be allowed in Europe as new churches in Muslim countries. Where would we be if Western values and legislation were reduced to a reflection of the behaviour of dictatorships and theocracies? What principles would be left to distinguish us from them?

The example of the United States and Canada shows that Muslims and mosques are viewed differently within the West. In North America, Muslims are mainly well-integrated citizens; their religious and cultural independence is generally accepted. Unlike in most European states, however, the majority of these Muslims are members of the middle classes: ambitious, often successful in business, loyal and politically active citizens.

The Muslims living in Canada and the United States are immigrants from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Arab countries. In Europe, in contrast, the majority are from North Africa and the Middle East. Due to their origins in the poorer, less developed regions of their original countries, they hold firm to religious traditions; the separation of state and religion, as practiced by the majority of Muslims from western Turkey who tend to lead secular lives, is an alien concept to most of them.

Unlike the Europeans, the North Americans do not have a history of centuries of Muslim onslaught on their continent. Thus, while the events of 9/11 did lead to tensions between the majority society and the Muslim minority, these problems have long since made way for a renewal of peaceful coexistence – not stoked up by corresponding experiences from the American collective memory. Mosques, be they with or without domes and minarets, in traditional or contemporary architectural language, are integrated into their respective urban contexts. Due to America's traditions of religious tolerance, there are simply no controversies over their construction.

Salomon Korn

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung / Qantara.de 2008

Professor Salomon Korn is the Vice President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. The architect and honorary senator of the University of Heidelberg has won a number of awards and honours for his wide-ranging voluntary work, intensive lecturing and publication activities, and his work as a juror and member of numerous academic and memorial centre advisory boards.

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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