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Constructing conflict – why plans to build a mosque are stirring up debate in Cologne

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In France, Germany and other parts of Europe the question of wearing a headscarf in school – be it as a student or teacher – often raises the question of whether Muslims are integrated here in Europe. But it’s the construction of mosques that’s stirring up more debate than any other integration issues. Major mosque projects from Marseille, to Amsterdam, Seville, London and Cologne have met with fierce opposition. Some fear these new mosques will serve as a breeding ground for extreme Islamic views and possibly terrorism.

Cologne is famous for its religious architecture, including Germany’s most spectacular Gothic cathedral. But this medieval cathedral may soon share the skyline with Germany’s biggest mosque. Plans are well under way to construct a mosque featuring two minarets more than 50 meters high and these plans are highly controversial.

With more than 200 churches and a cathedral that attracts 6 million visitors a year, religious buildings are not new to Cologne.

Böhm’s model for the Cologne mosque won him the first prizeBöhm’s model for the Cologne mosque won him the first prize
However, plans to build a new mosque for the city’s 120,000 Muslims has sparked a debate that now is questioning the role of Islam and the success of integration in Germany.

Almost ten percent of Cologne’s population is Muslim and this, coupled with the fact that the city is home to the headquarters of Germany’s most important Islamic organization, DITIB, has led to Cologne often being regarded as the German capital of Islam.

A mixed reception

In 2006, DITIB launched a competition to design a new mosque for Cologne and the surrounding area. The winning design was by Paul Böhm, who has already designed two churches in the city. All the major political parties supported the project and the city’s officials said that the building of a mosque was an not only an excellent opportunity to promote religious tolerance, but also an opportunity to send “a clear message to all those who were using the building of the mosque as an opportunity to try to spread messages of hate and xenophobia in order to stir up trouble in the population.”

Many locals are reluctant to discuss the issue of the mosque, with those who do split between a belief in Muslims’ constitutional right to practice their religion and worries about the size and consequences of the project.

With an area of 20 000 square meters and a 35 meter cupola, two 55 meter minarets and a prayer room that can accommodate 2000 worshipers, many citizens would like to see the size of the mosque reduced. Yet according to the head of DITIB, Mehmet Yildirim, since the size of the mosque is “nothing other than what was agreed” he sees no reason why further talks should take place.

Wider issues

Architect Paul BoehmArchitect Paul Boehm
There is a growing sense that the debate surrounding the size of the mosque is no longer just about the building. The mosque will include offices, a cafe and even a hairdressers and many see the mosque as an example of the growing “Islamisation” of Germany.

Ralph Giordanos is a prominent author from Cologne who has been outspoken in his protests against the mosque, accusing the city’s officials of sending a “false signal” about the success of the integration of the Islamic community and of acting as if the views of the local population had “no significance”.

Also campaigning strongly against the project is the citizens’ group, Pro-Köln. According to its research, 80% of locals are against the project and central to the group’s protest is the claim that the mosque will create a Muslim ghetto.

The group’s leader, Manfred Rouhs, pointed out that that not only is there already a mosque in the area, but the “Islamic representatives come from Turkey and don’t speak German” which “reinforces the presence of a Turkish ghetto”.

According to Rouhs, building a mosque in the area will strengthen the predominance of the Turkish language, which has longer term effects such as children who “grow up with Turkish as their mother tongue, have great difficulties at school because they are effectively being taught in a foreign language and as a consequence get bad grades and subsequently have poor employment prospects.”

Work is due to commence in the spring of 2008, but with growing resentment on both sides of the debate, the citizens of Cologne are in for a long winter.

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