The Transparent Penzberg Mosque

No Longer in the Backyard

Almost whenever plans are made to build a mosque in Germany, there's a heated debate. But in the Bavarian town of Penzberg, a new mosque has had a positive influence on the way in which Muslims and Christians live together. Francisca Zecher reports

The mosque of the Islamic Community of Penzberg (photo: dpa)
Transparent both in its architecture and in what goes on inside: the mosque of the Islamic Community of Penzberg

​​Almost whenever there' s a plan to build a mosque in Germany, it often leads to a heated debate, even before the project has got off the ground, as, for example, in the major cities of Munich and Cologne.

Opposition often arises from the fact that many non-Muslim citizens feel that their daily life will be affected by the construction of a large house of prayer in their vicinity. On the other hand, many people also consider the small backyard mosques, hidden from public view, to be objects of suspicion. They are concerned that they could encourage the development of "parallel societies" in Germany.

These are problems which the people in the Upper Bavarian town of Penzberg have not had to deal with. The Muslims there have succeeded in integrating into the wider community. And the town's Muslim leaders believe that the process of building the new mosque has contributed to that state of affairs.

Transparency and modernity

On a first approach, the large glass facade of the new mosque reflects the cars driving past on the main road. If one walks up closer to the glass, one can see the backs of some dozen men who are prostrating themselves towards the south-east, towards Mecca. Here, at the edge of the town, from which one can see the distant Alps, Muslims from Penzberg and the surrounding region have their meeting place. The community has some 600 members.

At first glance, the building is scarcely recognisable as a Muslim community centre. There is no muezzin's call to prayer to be heard either. There is just a tall column as one end of the square sand-coloured building which reminds one of a minaret – on the column there are words in Arabic which call the faithful to prayer visually.

Inside the building, which is flooded with light, there's a group of visitors gathered in front of the prayer hall.

Not a typical mosque

The young deputy director of the Islam Forum, Gönül Yerli, a woman, guides the guests on to the blue carpet in the hall. They are members of a local Munich branch of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister-party of the national Christian Democrats.

photo: DW
The Penzberg Mosque
Architect: Alen Jasarevic

​​You can see the cars going by the window through columned arches which are arranged one behind the other. In the middle of the room there's a second floor. This is a gallery which is reserved for the women, so that men and women cannot see each other. In other respects, however, the Muslim community of Penzberg strives for transparency.

Almost every day, Günül Yerli guides groups of visitors through the Islam Forum. Understanding between the religions is an explicit aim of her community.

"It's particularly important for us that this building doesn't immediately look like a mosque," she says, "but that it should be modern in design. And transparency is part of that modernity. That means that certain prejudices and many fears among the people should be laid to rest by the architecture itself. That's why it was a major issue for us that, for example, sixty percent of the building is covered in glass."

The mosque as a place for learning about Germany

One floor below, there's an integration course for women taking place, provided by a state adult education institute together with the Islam Forum. The children of the mostly young women are being looked after in a neighbouring room. Social worker Nermina Idriz finds it important that the two provisions are linked.

"It's above all a good preparation for kindergarten," she says, "since the children have already become used to quite a lot of things, like the rules, like the most important terms which are used, and so on. We said at the start that this provision for children is important, otherwise the mothers won't come. And if the children are here, we might as well use the opportunity to improve their language skills."

In the afternoons there is regular remedial teaching for children, and at the weekends, Gönül Yerli teaches Muslim religion in German, Turkish and Bosnian.

Opening up to non-Muslims

The Islam Forum, which has members from several countries, including Turkey, Bosnia and Albania, places particular emphasis on a European Islam. The imam, Benjamin Idriz, says this means separating themselves from the Islam as they knew it in their home countries, and opening themselves up to non-Muslims. But the young imam is aware that this policy is not always welcomed among his own members.

"What we are doing in Penzberg is new, at least for Bavaria," he says, "and so some of the communities and individual Muslims are sceptical about it. But we know that this is the only way for Europe. As time goes on, I am beginning to hear positive opinions from Muslims. What we are doing here is important and right, and it's the only alternative. In future, most Muslims will go in this direction."

The town's head of cultural activities, Thomas Sendl, confirms that the Muslim community's efforts at integration have been effective.

"From the point of view of the town, we view what the Muslim community is doing very positively," he says. "The dialogue with the catholic and protestant churches has led to the acceptance of the Muslim community, and it is now seen as well anchored in the local social structures."

Already, around a third of the 16,000 residents of Penzberg are said to have visited the Penzberg mosque at least once. But why does the relationship between the religions work so well here? Social worker Nermina Idriz thinks it is because the members of the community see Germany as their home. In addition, the fact that the members come from different countries has led them to adopt German as their common language, and that has made it much easier for the community to open itself to the wider world.

Francisca Zecher

© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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