How can we improve relations between Muslims and other members of the community? In many neighbourhoods, where people are rubbing along quite happily together, this question might not make much sense. But it can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that suspicions and hostility are also common, and for symbolic reasons, these feelings often find expression when a Muslim congregation decides to build a new mosque.
Equally, though, the decision to build a mosque can also be an opportunity to build bridges between Muslims and their neighbours. I was very forcibly struck by that when I saw the splendid new mosque in Cologne’s multi-cultural Ehrenfeld district. Cologne is famous for its extraordinary gothic cathedral, from which you can see the mosque’s two tall minarets, while the mosque itself is a large modern building on a busy cross-roads on the area’s main street.
In short, it is very visible, and it’s big. As in many other European countries, there were noisy protests when the plans were first announced, and far right groups have called repeatedly for it to be demolished. In contrast to some other cities, though, the protests rapidly became tiny, and have now vanished. Instead, in a city that has some pretty mediocre architexture, the mosque is now more llikely to attract pride.
What struck me was not just the soaring dome and minarets, but the lightness and openness of the building. There are vast windows and massive glass doors, which open out onto a square. We looked through the doors and saw rows of girls in the prayer hall with name plates in front of them, with tv cameras recording. A passer told us that the girls of the madrassa – it was Saturday – were taking part in a competition, and it was being filmed for Turkish tv. The congregation also have an informative and lively website, in German.
I found this openness – architectural and personal – very inviting. The whole aim of the building is to provide a space for worship and other community events that allows outsiders to see what is going on. And though this on its own won’t abolish mistrust and fear, it seems to me very likely to reduce them, and to prevent some of the ridiculous but harmful misinformation that surrounds Islam in much of the west.
For someone who is interested in social capital, this was a very encouraging experience. It is common in the social capital literature to find that most people trust and mix with people who are similar to them, and a number of studies show that ethnic and religious diversity are associated with lower levels of social capital.
However, while this may often be how we behave, there is nother inevitable about it. I particularly like one article, which confirms that while ethnic and religious diversity tend to undermine the social capital of white majorities, this effect disappears when people interact ‘across the fence’.
For me, the Cologne mosque at least puts windows in the fence, and provides a public space where non-Muslims can interact with Muslims on a personal level. It’s also an impressive statement of the ability of the Muslim community to take control of the debate over their place in the wider society, rather than passively suffering prejudice. In my view, an example worth following.
Update, December 2016: At the end of 2016 the mosque was still unfinished. It isn’t unusual for large building projects in Cologne to fall behind schedule (and over budget), but in this case it also seems that the project has fallen foul of the conflict within the Islamic community between supporters of Turkey’s president Erdogan and his critics. At present, the local committee seems fully supportive of the original “mosque for Cologne”; they opened the building for visitors on the Day of German Unity, under the theme of “Hijra: migration as challenge and opportunity, and were overwhelmed by curious locals. According to the local press, the mosque is now scheduled to open some time in 2017.