Mosque row exposes Germany's integration challenges
BERLIN, Nov 20: Abdul Basit Tariq serves tea and biscuits, removes his black cap and chats in English and German about how residents in the German capital oppose his plans to build a new mosque on the site of an old sauerkraut factory.
The imam of Berlin's Ahmadiyya Muslim community says people in the Pankow-Heinersdorf suburb in former communist east of the city are good but they have the wrong idea about Islam.
''(They) don't like the idea of foreigners coming,'' he said, sitting beneath a blue placard which read: ''Islam means peace.
Love for all. Hate for nobody.'' Residents, who have launched a ''No Mosque In Pankow!'' campaign, say the Ahmadiyya movement -- which defines itself as Muslim but is not recognised by some mainstream Muslim groups because of its divergent beliefs -- is a fundamentalist Islamic sect that wants to abolish democracy.
The row over the new mosque goes to the heart of an increasingly noisy Europe-wide debate about the integration of Muslim societies.
In Britain, that debate played out most recently in a public and passionate discussion over whether face veils hinder Muslim women's integration. Across Europe, several countries have taken tough stances on integration, with rules about language and culture tests and blunt advice on what must be accepted.
In Pankow-Heinersdorf, the wider debate's abstractions have come to life, exposing fear and suspicion and laying bare the challenges of overcoming such barriers in a country with 3.2 million Muslims, most of Turkish origin.
The Ahmadiyya movement, which already has 15 mosques in Germany, has received preliminary approval to construct the two-storey mosque with a 12-metre (39-foot) minaret.
''I've tried to understand them but when I read their views, it sets off alarm bells,'' said Joachim Swietlik, head of the IPAHB citizens community group.
FEAR Swietlik says 90 per cent of the Heinersdorf district's 6,500 registered citizens have signed up to the campaign against the mosque, to be built on 5,000 sq metres of wasteland where a sauerkraut factory operated until 1987.
''No Ahmadiyya members live here,'' Swietlik told Reuters.
''A place of worship, be it a mosque, church or synagogue, should be at the centre of a community. We fear many Ahmadiyya members will move here if the mosque is built,'' he said. Few Muslims have so far settled in Germany's former communist east.
The Ahmadiyya movement, founded in India in the 19th century, has 30,000 members in Germany and is aiming to have 100 mosques in the long run.
Tariq says his Berlin community needs a bigger mosque as it has grown to about 200 people in the last 30 years. Their mosque now is in another part of the city, in a beige-painted detached house with a well-tended lawn and pot plants. Were it not for the sign outside, passers-by would not realise the building was a mosque. A neighbour, who asked to remain anonymous, said the group caused no trouble and that its members kept to themselves.
But concerns about Islamic radicalisation across Europe and the emergence in Germany of an underclass of disillusioned young Muslims, mainly Turks, have stoked suspicion between non-Muslims and Muslims.
Thousands of Turks came to West Germany as unskilled labourers after World War Two and helped drive the economic boom. But politicians question whether the relative harmony between Germans and Muslims can last.
A Berlin opera house's decision to cancel performances of Mozart's ''Idomeneo'' over fears it might provoke Muslim violence -- because of a scene showing the severed head of the Prophet Mohammad -- aggravated concerns already heightened by failed bomb attacks on two trains in July, for which two Lebanese men were arrested.
Swietlik says he dreads an Islamist attack in Germany.
''Our politicians must act. They talk about multiculturalism and lack the courage to do anything,'' said the 42-year-old engineer. He said intelligence services should have more power to pursue potentially dangerous individuals.
Germany tightened controls on Islamist groups after three of the four suspected suicide pilots in the September 11 attacks on the United States, including alleged plot leader Mohamed Atta, were found to have lived in the northern German port city of Hamburg.
But the dual legacies of the Nazis and East Germany's Stasi secret police make security crackdowns sensitive matters.
The government launched an official dialogue with Muslim organisations in September to tackle issues like equal rights, Islamophobia and mosque-building.
Tariq, who preaches in German, applauds these efforts.
''I think the intention is good. We need dialogue to remove the misunderstandings keeping Germans and Muslims apart,'' he said, adding he is against parallel societies or ghettos.
Until now, most of Germany's 2,500 mosque associations have been small groups who gather in peoples' houses.
Tariq says his group chose Pankow-Heinersdorf purely because there was a suitable and affordable spot -- the land cost about 1 million euros.
''We'd been looking for a piece of land for 10 years, it was very difficult. We finally found a place but did not know people would be so hostile -- that was unexpected,'' he said.
But he also said Muslims needed to do more to combat fear.
''Unfortunately, some wrong practices give Muslims a bad name. As a reform community, we must change Muslims whose behaviour is not Islamic,'' he said.