The architecture of Euro-Islam
EUROPE - Does the self-willed historicism that seems to hold Islamic religious architecture in its thrall lie in the religion itself?
The history of Islam's reception in the West is one long series of misunderstandings. It is unclear if this confusion has reached its peak, or if things will become still more complicated and angst-ridden. Since the founding of the world's third major monotheistic religion by the Prophet Mohammed, the West's approach to Islam has consisted of exclusion. Christianity erected a wall against 'the foreign' – thanks to which ways of life and thinking on both sides of this boundary were respected. Only after the repulsion of apparent threats, by distancing, was mutual exchange possible. Elements of 'the foreign' were adopted, and the misunderstandings took a creative turn. Mathematics and calligraphy, Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio and Goethe's West-Eastern Divan, can all be explained in this way – wonders without which the Western world can no longer be imagined.
Over the last 50 years, however, everything has changed. Walls have been torn down, borders have fallen, cold misunderstandings have heated up. Europe has become an Islamic continent against its will – against its own mindset. But how did it all begin, this process that dominates the media almost daily and which has turned harmless misunderstandings into resentment, fear and even hate. When was Islam reinterpreted as a 'religion of death'?
Architecture of fear
It is hardly possible to answer such questions here. A distinction must therefore be made between what Islam may in fact be and the predominant image of Islam in the West, the actual subject of this text. One thing is certain: lack of knowledge about Islam is what makes the images we produce of this image-less religion so unclear. One concrete example is provided by architecture in the form of the mosques currently being constructed across Europe. Although they are being built in different contexts, financed from different sources, for communities with different origins and religious allegiances – although, in other words, a differentiated view is absolutely necessary – where Islam is concerned, 'Europe' suddenly appears united. United in rejection. Mosques, the countries of Europe agree, are the buildings of the 'enemy', of the 'foreign', not to be accepted on one's 'own' terrain; these symbols of Islam's triumphant advance must therefore be prevented. And besides, doesn't Islam represent a concrete threat that finds expression in terrorism?
This latter assertion, which is deepening the gulf between cultures, is zealously cultivated by certain European organizations: 'No Sharia in Europe' in Britain, 'SIAD' in Denmark, 'Pax Europa e.V.' in Germany, and 'Vlaams Beweging' in Belgium. In the Netherlands, after the murder of right-wing populist Pim Fortuyn, the task of warning against domination by foreign influences was assumed by the right-wing politician Geert Wilders, who has spoken of a 'tsunami of Islamization' in Europe. In political terms, the differences between these groups and parties, who openly espouse xenophobic ideas, are negligible. In August 2007, for example, the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) petitioned for a referendum against the erection of minarets in Switzerland. The crucial factor, however, is not the impact these groups have at the margins of society, but at its centre – the aim being to generate widespread fear. And of course these Islamophobic movements have their equivalents among their religious-cultural opponents, groups that conform to all the clichés of 'terror' and 'Jihad'. In Britain, for example, as soon as Gordon Brown took office as prime minister, he faced the challenge of banning the 'Islamic liberation party', Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose stated aim is a worldwide Caliphate with Sharia law as its constitution. Similar views were held by Metin Kaplan, the 'Caliph of Cologne', who was deported from Germany to Turkey in October 2004. Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, often refers to Spain as 'Al-Andalus', as if the re-Reconquista were imminent. Radical Islamic tendencies seem to exist right across Europe. They may be minorities, but they dominate the media. As a result, the public view in Europe is shaped by the confrontation between fanatical Muslims and fanatical anti-Muslims. As if we were on the verge of a civil war. As if normality in relations with Euro-Islam were impossible.
The fact that this panic has been possible is due not least to the disposition of today's Westerners. Although they like to consider Western culture intellectually superior with regard to Islam, emotionally speaking they are in the weaker position. The cohesive force of Christianity has waned noticeably, parish halls are empty, churches are falling into disuse, being converted or demolished. At the same time, new mosques are being built everywhere. In Germany alone, where there are already 159 Islamic places of worship (this figure refers to large jama'a mosques; there are a further 2600 masjid mosques, smaller rooms for meeting and prayer), a further 184 mosques are either under construction or planned – in every case accompanied by heated dispute. Elsewhere in Europe, the number of mosques is also growing, but not so dramatically. For Germany, which is home to 3.4 million immigrant Muslims (mostly from Turkey), is currently experiencing an Islamic 'coming-out': organizations that would formerly have contented themselves with commercial or industrial premises for their place of worship are now confidently asserting their public presence. France, on the other hand, which is home to five million Muslims, has closer ties with Islamic culture as a result of its colonial history. According to the Yearbook of Mosques (ed. Idriss Elouanali), there were around 100 jama'a mosques and 1525 prayer rooms in France in 2006. In Britain, the total of both types of mosque is 1699 – twenty years ago there were fewer than 400.
It is not a matter of statistics alone, however, but of symbolism. The buildings are interpreted as symbols of the supposed opposition between the secularized West and Islamic 'irrationality'. Muslims are said to lack self-confidence. In the historical-teleological development of human intellect, Islam is said to be at a more primitive stage than the reformed, a-religious West. A recurrent theme of media reporting since 11 September 2001 is the crude observation that Islam has not yet experienced a period of Enlightenment. Of course, all of these claims say nothing about Islam. They are merely vain attempts to couch the 'foreign' in Western terms – thereby exacerbating terrible misunderstandings.
Churches to mosques? Euro-Islam - World Islam
But how do European Muslims view this problem? In 1989, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community launched its 'Hundred Mosques Project'. The aim was to build 2500 Ahmadiyya mosques across Europe in ten years as a visible sign of the advance of Islam. But Ahmadiyya, considered a liberal community, was unable to achieve its goal. It may have been a question of money. Or of Islam's complicated subdivisions, in which Ahmadiyya plays a minor role. In the Balkans, for example, the construction of mosques is financed by Wahhabi sponsors from Saudi Arabia. Where Turks are involved, support may come from the Milli Görüs organization. Or from the Ditib (Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs), a state 'association' run by the secularist leadership in Ankara rather like a state church. In the London borough of Newham, there are currently plans to build Europe's largest mosque – capable of holding 12,000 worshippers and located next to the site of the 2012 Olympic Games. The 'mega-mosque' is controversial because it is being financed by the conservative missionary organization Tablighi Jamaat.
Just how many organizations and financiers are involved in the architecture of Euro-Islam is hard to say in view of the vast spectrum of activity. Notwithstanding the basic points of agreement – the belief in God and his Prophet, the Koran as God's word, Arabic as God's language – there is no single Islam. Unlike Christianity, where both the Eastern and Western Churches are structured by central authorities, Islam has no overall hierarchy. Although there are a number of umbrella organizations, each community is autonomous, a self-managed grass-roots organization, financially independent, responsible for raising its own funds for mosque building from a wide range of sources (making donations is firmly anchored in Islam as one of the duties of every Muslim). But this complexity has other causes, too. As it spread during the course of its 1400-year history, Islam encountered very different peoples, cultures and nations. Each such encounter gave the religion a distinctive local 'spin'. The best example of this is the unique Turkish development within Islamic architecture: as a result of the dialogue with early Christian religious buildings, especially Hagia Sophia, which became a key reference object after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and which was rewardingly reinterpreted by the architect Mimar Sinan, mosques came to be built as cruciform domed structures.
Such independent interpretations were and continue to be possible not least because Islam has never laid down binding rules for the architectural type of the mosque. The Koran specifies only the direction in which believers should pray (qibla), usually indicated inside the mosque by an ornate arch (mihrab). But the size, shape, type and other parameters of the mosque are not defined – leaving them to be freely interpreted, essentially reinventing the mosque as a whole with each new project. The organizational diversification of Islam is thus necessarily reflected by a diversification of design. Differences between mosques are possible not only between nations, but also at the micro level, between every community. No two mosques are identical, each is self-sufficient: be it a basement room, a converted supermarket, a domed marble-clad space or a colossal column-lined hall. This phenomenon makes Islamic architecture extremely interesting, as it allows the form a community gives its mosque to take on a symbolic character.
Two examples from the many mosque-building projects currently underway illustrate the range of styles involved. In Granada, Spain, a new mezquita was inaugurated in 2003, which proudly refers to the Iberian peninsula's Arab tradition by quoting elements of the Great Mosque in Cordoba and the Alhambra. The building strictly avoids any independent development of the tradition. The community understands this historical reference in programmatic terms, explicitly reconnecting with the pre-Christian tradition. 'The Mosque of Granada also reflects the undimmed vitality of the prophetic message encompassed in Islam and its immediate relevance to the current situation in Europe and the Western World. The renewed aspiration of European Muslims today is to contribute to the amelioration of a world beset by intolerable dilemmas and every kind of injustice. The way of Islam offers natural and viable alternatives to the headlong and voracious impetus of the consumer capitalist system, which is destroying all human values and in consequence the humanity of the society in which we all share' (www.granadamosque.com, accessed 10.10.2007). In accordance with the task it has set itself, the mosque and its Koran school act as a centre of European Islam, hosting a major annual conference (www.emunion.org).
The second example is in Germany, forty kilometres south of Munich, in the small town of Penzberg whose mosque entertains ambitions similar to those of Granada: to become a centre of European Islam. But how different the architecture looks (see A10 #14): cubic volume, abstract details, playful development of traditional forms. This building cannot be properly understood without the illustrious figure of Penzberg's imam, the barely forty-year-old Macedonian Benjamin Idriz who has been with the community since 1995. Idriz has established himself as a spokesman for an 'open' religion. He seeks dialogue with non-Muslims as a way of bringing about the integration of a decidedly 'modern' Islam into Western society. His charisma, his educated manners and his undoubted piety, which he is perfectly capable of communicating in German, have gained the imam unusual levels of sympathy. For a short while, it seemed as if a form of Euro-Islam might emerge here that was of its time, above suspicion, capable of overcoming the hostile cliché of the 'foreign'. Then Idriz began to encounter resistance from within his own camp – the diversification of Islam was his undoing: his authority as self-declared spokesman of German Muslims crumbled, several organizations denied him their approval. And suddenly it was alleged that he had received funds from Milli Görüs, which is viewed as a fundamentalist organization. This story shows that an advanced aesthetic cannot necessarily be read as a symbol of an advanced position with respect to religious content. A simple interpretation does not do justice to the complex forms in which Euro-Islam manifests itself – this is perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from this first closer look at a new architecture that is only just emerging.
Most of the new mosques, however, regardless of who builds them and who pays, function like the Granada example: in Berlin, the Turks chose an Ottoman style; in Rotterdam, the architects Molenaar & van Winden designed a hybrid of various Islamic models; across Europe, minarets are rising into the sky. All these buildings are the products of a traditionalist approach. They appear to reveal how much those responsible long for their home countries. In this way, the architecture of Euro-Islam becomes a symbol of the diaspora situation in which most European Muslims find themselves. They came as guest workers, live at the lower end of the social scale and have a minimal acquaintance with the language, culture and religion of their adoptive countries. This will only change with the Muslims of the third or fourth generation – and that, too, may have an impact on architecture.
What is really baffling is that this picture doesn't change when one travels to those parts of Europe where Islam is the main religion. In the Balkans, for example, the amount of non-traditional mosque architecture is negligible. The same is true of Turkey. In response to my question about modern mosques, A10 correspondent Omer Kanipak expressed disappointment with religious architecture in his country: 'If a mosque is to be built, 99% believe it should have a dome, a minaret and arched windows or such basic structural elements.' Tradition, repetition, imitation, even here in an Islamic motherland.
We are left with a puzzling question concerning Islamic architecture per se: does the lack of a fixed mosque typology lead, not to endless freedom, but to an architectural culture that confines itself to tried and tested patterns? Does the self-willed historicism that seems to hold Islamic religious architecture in its thrall lie in the religion itself? Might this even be a source of fresh misunderstandings with regard to the Orient? As Ulya Vogt-Göknil poetically puts it in her standard work, Turkish Mosques (1953). 'Compared with the dialectic development in western art history, the development of Islamic art as a whole seems to have more in common with the closed form of the fugue, where similar-sounding melodies, sung by different peoples, recur over time in all their various settings, reversals and new combinations, but with the basic motif from which these melodies are derived always remaining constant.' Whether or not the architecture of Euro-Islam will develop into a distinct variation on this basic motif cannot be estimated with any degree of certainty at the present time.
January | 2008 | Europe | Christian Welzbacher