Mosque Conflict in Franconia

Home Advantage for Mosque Opponents

A conflict over plans to build a new mosque in the German town of Wertheim extended over 20 years. The documentary film Heimvorteil (Home Advantage) portrays the main participants in this dispute and shows how blocking the construction of a mosque turned back the clock on integration. By Klaus Heymach

A conflict over plans to build a new mosque in the German town of Wertheim extended over 20 years. The documentary film Heimvorteil (Home Advantage) portrays the main participants in this dispute and shows how blocking the construction of a mosque turned back the clock on integration. By Klaus Heymach

Friday prayers in the new mosque in Wertheim (photo: SWR/Jan Gabriel)
Following a long dispute, the first Friday prayers were held in the new Wertheim mosque – an old, converted commercial building that is not recognizable as a mosque from the outside

​​ The Tauber River flows languidly alongside narrow medieval streets; the riverbanks are lined by beautifully restored half-timber houses and lush green meadows; white puffy clouds decorate the bright blue sky. It's an idyllic setting, complete with a hill-top castle, the former seat of the Counts of Wertheim.

Local businessman Willi Schwend stands atop this fortified stronghold and gazes down at the confluence of two rivers, the Tauber and the Main: "That's our homeland and we'll defend it and endeavour to preserve it," he says on camera, as he launches a challenge to the Muslims of the city.

Fervent opposition to changing the status quo

For his final film project at the Baden-Württemberg Film Academy, director Jan Gabriel documented this conflict and accompanied the opposing parties for two years, from early 2005 to 2007.

The film was broadcast on SWR, a regional German TV network, under the title Moschee, nein Danke! (Mosque, No Thanks!). Without taking sides or making comments, Gabriel managed to get the antagonists to voice opinions on camera that they would normally only mutter to themselves or venture to pronounce when among friends at their local pub.

The dilapidated old building that housed Wertheim's old Muslim prayer room (photo: SWR/Jan Gabriel)
Many town residents didn't even realize that their community already had a Muslim prayer room – in this dilapidated old building

​​ Schwend is a local businessman who earns his money by producing glass coatings. When the Islamic community decided to build a house of worship next to his factory, he went ballistic. "Everything looks picture-perfect here. And that's the way it's going to stay."

Ömer Akbulut also earns a living processing glass. His father came to Baden-Württemberg in 1969 as a guest worker. The town of Wertheim needed him to work in the newly established glass industry.

A lack of communication

When Ömer was ten years old, he used to walk past a crucifix on his way to school. "I've never understood this cross," he says to the camera as the filmmakers accompany him almost four decades later. "What cruelty must be behind this, how can you hang a person like that? A ten-year-old doesn't understand such things."

There are misunderstandings, prejudices and ignorance on both sides – unconsciously or deliberately – which ensure that the residents of Turkish origin and old-established families keep to themselves.

It was only when the Muslims asked the town council for a piece of land to build a new and presentable mosque that many people in Wertheim found out that the town already had a Muslim prayer room in a dilapidated old building, says Akbulut, the longstanding spokesman for the Islamic community. This was when he first realized that he needed to go out and advocate their project. He visited schools and kindergartens in the small town and explained how Muslims pray and what is written in the Koran.

A key question for the system

While Schwend was busy collecting thousands of signatures and stirring up fears, Akbulut continued to pursue the idea of building a magnificent house of worship.

"A mosque is also an essential part of feeling that you are at home," he says. "If I, as a Muslim, cannot build a mosque, then the entire system here is no good." Praying in a courtyard or a production hall is thus out of the question for this family man, who is perfectly integrated, speaks with a southern German accent, and has a gregarious personality. As a member of society, he also wants his religion to have a place in everyday life – complete with a minaret and a gilded dome.

Ömer Akbulut (photo: SWR/Jan Gabriel)
As a fully integrated member of German society and the longstanding spokesman of Wertheim's Islamic community, Ömer Akbulut would like his religion to have a place in everyday life – complete with a minaret and a gilded dome

​​ But Schwend was determined to prevent the new construction next to his factory: "Building regulations always offer an opportunity to block a mosque," he says on film. The town council also adopted this approach.

They eventually offered the Muslims a plot with an old pigsty, located next to a discotheque, and added the condition that hedges and trees had to be planted as a screen – so the mosque wouldn’t be visible from the main highway. When the Islamic community actually accepted this stipulation, the city withdrew its offer.

Clearly, this is not about parking space problems and architectural issues. Schwend has good connections in the city. He introduces his brother Gerhard to the camera team, an honorary citizen of Wertheim who sat on the town council for 40 years as a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

"They have to rewrite the entire Koran," the former mayor says to the camera. His son Michael is now carrying on with his political legacy. "I could also travel to Africa and say that I have to kill ten nigger kids every day, that's my religion," he adds during the same scene, which was omitted from the film, but can be viewed online (http://heimvorteil-film.de). He says the state must prohibit immigrants from pursuing similar "radical ideas" in Germany.

Diplomatic clichés

Akbulut's idea of a large mosque on the Tauber may also have been too radical for many residents of Wertheim. In the end, he was even dropped by his own people. The Muslim community in the town is now led by men who hardly speak German and are not particularly well integrated.

Mosque opponent Willi Schwend (photo: SWR/Jan Gabriel)
Willi Schwend is a leading opponent of the mosque in Wertheim and a member of the "Pax Europa Citizens' Movement," which warns of the "creeping Islamisation" of Germany and Europe

​​ They are converting an old commercial building into a house of worship that is not recognizable as a mosque from the outside – and are falling back on diplomatic clichés: "We are satisfied with the town of Wertheim and the town of Wertheim is satisfied with us."

And Willi Schwend, who wanted no minarets or domes in his home town, has taken his cause on the road as a "travelling salesman in the fight against Islam," as Gabriel says in his film. The anti-Islam activist is now the chairman of the "Bürgerbewegung Pax Europa" (Pax Europa Citizens' Movement), which warns of the "creeping Islamisation" of Germany and Europe.

A lesson in integration

In the town of Wertheim, the documentary film has opened a number of people's eyes to what they have been roped into, as Gabriel puts it.

In that sense, the film is a documentation of failure: churches, local politicians, the media and civil society, and also the Turkish Islamic Union for the Institution of Religion (DITIB) all failed to support pro-integration segments of the Islamic community, says the director.

"Muslims can also learn from this conflict," says Gabriel, "and if they want to build a mosque, they have to work for it." Otherwise such a project – at least in provincial regions of Germany – may also engender a sense of "irritation" among those who are not hostile to Islam. In Wertheim the Turks are once again praying in the industrial park, where they have the place to themselves.

Klaus Heymach

© Qantara 2009

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