Conflicts over Mosques in Europe. Policy issues and trends


Conflicts over Mosques in Europe. Policy issues and trends

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The ‘Religion and Democracy

in Europe’ initiative

The Network of European Foundations (NEF) is an operational platform primarily

committed to strengthening the potential for cooperation in the form of joint ventures

between foundations at the European level. The NEF offers its members the

opportunity to identify common goals and, as an open structure, to join forces with

other foundations in Europe which may share similar concerns and objectives. It

is also open to collaboration with the public and private sectors in developing its

initiatives. Its areas of intervention to promote systemic social change include

migration, European citizenship, support for the European integration process,

youth empowerment and global European projects. The NEF is based in Brussels.

In January 2007 the NEF launched a special initiative on ‘Religion and

Democracy in Europe’. This was conducted with the participation of Hywel Ceri

Jones, NEF European policy adviser, and was based on a partnership between

several foundations, including: Van Leer Group Foundation (chair); Arcadia Trust;

Barrow Cadbury Trust; Bernheim Foundation; Compagnia di San Paolo; Ford

Foundation; Freudenberg Stiftung; King Baudouin Foundation; Riksbankens

Jubileumsfond; Stefan Batory Foundation; and Volkswagen Stiftung.

The ‘Religion and Democracy in Europe’ initiative focuses on the relation

between religion and democracy in European societies, covering both religion

and the public domain and religion and the state. The aim is to contribute to a

better informed debate on the topic through seminars and research on related


The first year of activities, which included a roundtable with specialized

journalists and a series of youth debates, culminated in the publication through

6 Conflicts over mosques in europe

Alliance Publishing Trust of a compendium in which all the material presented in

an international symposium held in Jerusalem was collected. This publication is

available on NEF’s website at

The second phase of the ‘Religion and Democracy in Europe’ initiative

(2008–9) aims to develop a series of reports addressing specific aspects of the

interaction both between the state and religion and between religion and society.

The reports are a mapping exercise of existing practices and different approaches

to specific issues, set in the broader context of the religion and democracy debate.

They target practitioners, policy makers and civil society actors. The reports have

been developed by acknowledged experts and address the following questions:

Religion and Healthcare –– in the European Union Dimitrina Petrova and

Jarlath Clifford

–– Teaching about Religions in European School Systems Luce Pepin

–– Conflicts over Mosques in Europe Stefano Allievi

–– Religion and Group focused Enmity Andreas Zick and Beate Kupper

Through this and other activities, the ‘Religion and Democracy in Europe’ initiative

aims to open up and contribute to the public debate on issues of strategic

importance for the future of European societies.

For more information

For more on NEF and its activities, please contact

For more on the ‘Religion and Democracy in Europe’ initiative, please contact (chairman) or cristina.pineda@nefic.

org (coordinator).

About the authors

Stefano Allievi is Professor of Sociology at the University of Padua. His special

interests include migration issues, sociology of religion and cultural change; he

has particularly focused his studies on the presence of Islam in Europe, a subject

on which he has published extensively.

The text is also based on researches conducted by Jordi Moreras (Spain),

Maria Bombardieri (Italy), Athena Skoulariki (Greece), Ernst Furlinger (Austria),

Azra Akšamija (Bosnia Herzegovina), Felice Dassetto and Olivier Ralet

(Belgium), and Goran Larsson (Sweden); and on national overviews contributed

by Sophie Gilliat Ray and Jonathan Birt (Great Britain), Omero Marongiu Perria

(France), Michael Kreutz and Aladdin Sarhan (Germany), Nico Landman

(Netherlands), and Goran Larsson (Finland, Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia

and Lithuania).




The research background: exceptionalism and Islam

As the reader will immediately see, the present study is the only one in the series

not to have a general point of reference. Instead of addressing a broad issue such

as places of worship, it focuses right from the outset on a single issue: the question

of mosques, which is identified as a separate issue with its own specific


This approach faithfully reflects the current state of affairs, as we will

demonstrate in the pages below. Although forms of discrimination on the basis of

religion are not completely absent – in particular, cases of discrimination towards

certain minority religions or religious beliefs, some of which have even come

before the European courts – in no country and in no other case has the opening

of places of worship taken on such a high profile in the public imagination as

the question of mosques and Islamic places of worship. With the passage of time,

the question of mosques has led to more and more frequent disputes, debates,

conflicts and posturing, even in countries where such conflicts were previously

unknown and mosques were already present. This simple fact already puts us on a

road that we might define as ‘exceptionalism’ with reference to Islam: a tendency

to see Islam and Muslims as an exceptional case rather than a standard one; a

case that does not sit comfortably with others relating to religious pluralism, and

which therefore requires special bodies, actions and specifically targeted reactions,

unlike those used for other groups and religious minorities, and (as in the

present study) specific research.

8 Conflicts over mosques in europe

An example of this exceptionalism is seen in the forms of representation

of Islam in various European countries, which vary from case to case but differ, in

particular, with respect to the recognized practices of relations between states

and religious denominations in general. The most symbolic case is the creation

in various countries, such as France, Spain, Belgium and Italy, of collective bodies

of Islamic representation, with forms that often contradict the principles of

non interference in the internal affairs of religious communities proclaimed and

enshrined for other denominations and religious minorities. Forms of exceptionalism

from a legal, political and social perspective are, however, present in many

other fields, following a pervasive trend which affects countries with the widest

range of state structures and which appears to be in a phase of further growth.

This situation, together with the increasingly evident emergence into the

public arena of the dynamics of a conflict involving Islam (a kind of conflict in which

the construction of mosques is the most frequent and widespread cause of disagreement),

led to a desire to analyse recent cases of conflict, including clashes

in countries that are regarded as peripheral within the European Union (EU) or

that lie beyond its borders. For this reason, we have chosen, contrary to the usual

practice, to pay closest attention to the least studied and analysed countries,

for which scientific literature is least abundant. Setting off on this supposition,

we believe that meaningful data for the interpretation of broader dynamics may

emerge from an extensive analysis of the frequency and pervasiveness of these

conflicts, which are also affecting countries with a long history of immigration

and are more generally affecting the relationship between Islam and Europe.

For this reason we conducted a set of empirical investigations across

seven European countries that are among the least studied and least known

in this respect. We selected three Mediterranean countries which in certain

respects vary greatly from one another: two countries in similar situations, where

there is new immigration from Muslim countries and the memory of ancient

historical domination (Spain and Italy); and one in which there is new immigration

from Muslim countries along with a significant historical Islamic presence

(the memory of Turkish Ottoman domination) that poses a number of problems

(Greece). Also chosen were two countries which have a very significant historical

Islamic presence but which also face a number of new problems (Austria

and Bosnia Herzegovina); the Nordic country with the largest Islamic presence

(Sweden); and a central European country which has a long history of immigration

and a particular institutional nature (Belgium). The last of these is also notable

for its markedly local management of conflicts, which from a methodological

perspective makes it an interesting control group.


For countries that are better known and for which the literature is much

more abundant and readily available in English or in languages that are widely

known and spoken in the EU (Great Britain, France, Germany, Netherlands), we

have consulted available literature and produced an overview (including some

particularly important recent empirical cases). The same was done for very

little known smaller countries, such as the Nordic and Baltic States.1

Keywords: conflict, mosques, Islam, Europe

Key elements and keywords of the research are: mosques, conflict, Islam, Europe.

‘Mosques’ and ‘conflict’ represent or describe the actual situation. This

tallies with the observation that these two words, which we will define in greater

detail below, tend to ‘go together’ – at least at this time in history, and in many

countries – with relative ease, producing specific dynamics. On the other hand,

Islam and Europe (or Islam and individual nations, or Islam and cultural interpretations

of their respective national self definitions, variously defined as Britishness,

Italianita, identite republicaine, etc, depending on the country) are the main

interpretative categories that arise from the collision of the first pairing.

It is interesting to note that the first pairing produces and expresses the

second one, which, however, rests on a different interpretative plane and at a

different level. The first pairing is local, the second global; the first is concrete

and has a clear empirical basis, the second is abstract and refers to cultural

value based registers; the first has a spatio temporal localization that is missing

in the second, or that expresses it in a completely different manner; and so forth.

Thus these words, paired together, end up having a contrasting value, which is

in itself a cultural product. ‘Mosques’ and ‘conflict’ are already two words that

directly express dissonance, the idea of a problem. The same is true if we take the

words ‘Islam’ and ‘Europe’. However, this is not necessarily the case if one looks

at facts rather than cultural interpretations. In fact, Islam and Europe have historically

lived in different degrees of approximation, and this should be outlined,

albeit briefly.

1 The following people have worked on the research, coordinated by Stefano Allievi: empirical

researches – Jordi Moreras (Spain), Maria Bombardieri (Italy), Athena Skoulariki (Greece), Ernst

Furlinger (Austria), Azra Akšamija (Bosnia Herzegovina), Felice Dassetto and Olivier Ralet

(Belgium), Goran Larsson (Sweden); national overviews – Sophie Gilliat Ray and Jonathan Birt

(Great Britain), Omero Marongiu Perria (France), Michael Kreutz and Aladdin Sarhan (Germany),

Nico Landman (Netherlands). Goran Larsson also provided a summary of the Baltic and Nordic

countries (Finland, Norway and Denmark; Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). The authors provided

papers on the respective national cases. Where no other sources are mentioned, the data on specific

cases quoted in the report may be presumed to come from the above mentioned papers. Mistakes of

fact and interpretation rest on the shoulders of the author of the report, who relied on his personal

skills and experience in the field in his effort of reinterpretation.

10 Conflicts over mosques in europe

Islam and Europe: stages of approximation

We cannot here go into the details of historical processes that are long, complex

and far from linear. We can, however, attempt to summarize them, albeit in a schematic

manner that does not seek to reconstruct historical detail but to highlight

current trends (Allievi 2005a; Allievi 2005b).

Phase 1: Islam and Europe A long first stage, lasting for at least the first

ten centuries of the history of Islam, was one of major conflicts (analysed as

such, however, only at a later date), symbolized by the Crusades, which saw Islam

and (Christian) Europe facing one another, conceived and perceived as mutually

impenetrable and self referencing. All this was in spite of reality and history,

which show how permeability and exchange (of philosophical ideas, scientific

concepts, and artistic forms, as well as economic and trading links) were more

the norm than the exception.

Phase 2: Europe in Islam In the second phase, we see European dominance

of Islamic lands (the most powerful symbolic moment of this was the Napoleonic

expedition to Egypt in 1798). First, in the age of empires and the colonial

period, Europe dominated Muslim countries directly. Later, during the ongoing

stage of neo  or post colonial influence ‘at a distance’ – through economic

globalization, the pervasiveness of the mass media and western consumption

patterns – Europe has gradually brought the Muslim world within transnational

economic trends and political institutions.

Phase 3: Islam in Europe In a third, more recent phase, Islam began to

spread in Europe through migration. This began in France, for example, between

the two world wars, and in most European countries during the period of postwar

reconstruction and economic boom – in the 1950s and 1960s in the centre and

north, and later still, from the late 1970s onwards, in southern Europe. It is still a

phase characterized mainly by first generation immigrants coming from former

colonies (from Algeria to France, for instance, and from the Indian subcontinent

to Great Britain), but there are also new forms of immigration (such as Turks

coming to Germany), which gradually expand as more and more countries export

labour in response to European demand.

Phase 4: the Islam of Europe In a fourth phase we observe the emergence

and consolidation of an Islam of Europe, through a gradual process of insertion,

manifested in the processes of integration – initially in the workplace, then in a

social and sometimes political context – and of generational transition. Together,

these contribute to the formation of a middle class and an intelligentsia of Islamic

origin: one that still has relations with the countries of origin, but which does not

come from outside, and is born and socialized in Europe – self formed and forced

or encouraged to build its own identity and its own space.


Phase 5: European Islam The result of this process should be the formation

of a genuine European Islam, with its own pronounced identity different from

that of Arabic Islam or that of other countries and cultural areas of origin. This

Islam is (and even more in the future will be seen to be) a native European movement,

largely the result of a gradual and substantial process of ‘citizenization’

of Muslims residing in Europe, who look forward to the prospect of full rights on

an equal footing with other Europeans, with whom they share a common destiny.

Of this phase, for now just given in outline, one cannot say much, except that its

outcome will depend on the internal evolution of Muslim communities and their

populations; on the dynamics of global Islam; and, perhaps most importantly, on

the reactions and policies adopted towards them by the governments of individual

European countries, which will in turn be influenced by their political parties

and public opinion. In a word, the outcome will depend largely on non Muslims,

on the manner in which they approach the problem, on discussions of the issue,

and on the fears and visions of the wider world.

Today, most European countries find themselves somewhere between the

third and fourth phases, although there are some hints of the beginning of the fifth

phase, which will become more visible in the years and decades to come. It should

be borne in mind that the cycle constantly starts over again with the arrival of new

immigrants, and that the tendencies outlined are precisely that: general trends

that are empirically verifiable, but which do not involve entire Muslim populations,

who will show resistance, counter tendencies and differing positions on these

processes. Such resistance can also be found among second generation citizens.

Like all social phenomena, these cannot be generalized, and show elements

of complexity, contradiction and ambiguity.

The important point to appreciate is that we have in fact emerged from a

contraposition that we can now recognize as a false opposition: one that seeks

to place Islam and Europe as two horns of an insoluble dilemma. Today, Islam is in

Europe, and it is here to stay, albeit progressively and in different forms. And yet,

as the conflicts surrounding mosques in Europe show, interpretations increasingly

tend to go in the opposite direction: a sign that the trend we have outlined is

not really perceived and accepted as such. Interpretations of conflict are tending

increasingly to appear even in countries where the process of inclusion, of mixite,

of progressive ‘citizenization’ have gone furthest.

Cultural conflicts and public debates on Islam in Europe

The presence of Islam in Europe’s ‘public space’ could not go unnoticed either

socially or culturally. It is, or is perceived to be, too visible or too different not to

12 Conflicts over mosques in europe

provoke debates or even tensions, for historical, cultural, religious, political and

social reasons.

Confrontation seems to occur ‘across the board’. Islam is itself questioned,

often through essentialist and simplistic interpretations and controversies

regarding dogmatic aspects and customs. Some aspects of Islam are also

called into question for the way they manifest themselves, particularly in Muslim

countries: of these aspects, the most discussed are those related to the condition

of women and to gender equality, and to the relationship between religion and

violence, fundamentalism and, more generally, politics. Finally, confrontation

leads to questions and debate about the host society itself: on its degree of ‘openness’,

on its borders, on the possibilities of and limits to integration, on how best

to achieve this (in essence, this is the debate on multiculturalism), and on the

definition of any possible ‘tolerance thresholds’, at an ethnic or religious level.

All this may happen without there necessarily being any debate or direct

dialogue or confrontation with Muslims, or between society and the Muslims who

live in it. Often these are debates within societies about Muslims and Islam.

To give some examples, the presence of Islam in Europe raises various

kinds of tensions, controversies, debates and conflicts:

Conflicts about principles and ideas: from the Rushdie –– affair in Britain

(and elsewhere) to the cartoons affair in Denmark (and elsewhere). All

these are perfect examples of global/local – or ‘glocal’ – issues, showing

how easily questions concerning Islam in Europe can become influential

and produce a repositioning of public and social actors, both in Europe

and in Muslim countries.

–– Conflicts brought about by dramatic events happening in Europe

concerning Islam and caused by Islamic actors: terrorism (9/11 and its

consequences in European countries – where some of the terrorists,

such as Mohamed Atta, came from; the terrorist attacks in London and

Madrid) and individual demonstrative acts, such as the assassination of

Theo van Gogh.

–– Controversies frequently raised and discussed in public debate relating

to gender issues: the hijab is symbolic of this, but more generally, there

are questions on the role of women in Islam, how this is perceived

in the West and its effects on Muslim families, conflicts between

generations, etc.

There are controversies, however, in which not only different opinions regarding

relations with Islam are involved but also the Muslim social actors themselves.

The case of mosques is the most significant in this sense, even if it is not the only


one, because it relates to a conflict that is not only debated within society, but is

about society itself. This point seems particularly significant, in that it implies the

perception of control over the territory and its symbolic imprinting. After all, control

of and over the territory is not only a cultural and symbolic fact, it is also (and

remains, in spite of everything) a very concrete and material sign of dominion and


These disputes are not limited to the establishment of places of worship;

they also include the question of their visibility in European cities, which has an

evident symbolic value. This issue encompasses related questions regarding the

broadcasting of the adhan, the call to prayer, from mosques to the areas surrounding

them, as well as the issue of Muslim cemeteries and the right to obtain religiously

exclusive areas within existing cemeteries. These questions are important

for various reasons. They not only show how the presence of Islam in Europe

is debated and confronted; they are also crucial in understanding the broader

issues of Europe as a whole: its problems, its values and its identity.

The mosque issue, in itself, may not even exist. On the one hand, there is

nothing more obvious and natural than that foreign communities should wish and

need to have their own meeting places according to their religious affiliations, and

that they should enjoy the same fundamental rights that European constitutions

grant to other minorities. On the other hand, these conflicts reflect a malaise and/

or a deeper rejection, the reasons for which must be taken into account. Very few

of those opposing the presence of mosques or prayer halls would say that they

want to prevent anyone from praying. The reason given is always other than this; it

goes deeper and is linked to the symbolic appropriation of territory, which has to

do with history and its reconstruction, but it is also linked to deep socio cultural

dynamics, and to Islam itself and its presence in Europe. These conflicts cannot

be interpreted only from the perspective of political fearmongers. The building of

a mosque or the adaptation of a prayer hall is hardly ever merely an architectural

and urban planning issue; it generates in depth social and cultural discussions

and reactions. These conflicts also appear to be semantically over determined in

cultural terms.

The above set of reasons and empirical evidence help to explain why we

have conducted this research.

Guidelines and methodology of the research

In most European countries a clear national framework or a well defined policy

regarding the construction of mosques does not exist. In different countries

almost every possible approach to the subject has been tried, from opposition

14 Conflicts over mosques in europe

and refusal to political and even economic support. However, the way of dealing

with mosque construction has also changed over time for political reasons and

as a result of socio cultural changes. There may be differences in the policies

adopted in different regions and there may be striking differences in the policies

operating in different cities of the same country. There may also be significant

similarities in the policies adopted in the cities of countries with completely different

legislative frameworks and different systems of relations between the

state and religious communities. In order to understand how the various factors

interact, local research and investigation are needed, as well as a comparative

analysis and multifactorial explanations. The standard approach is to analyse

similar cases in different contexts, and different cases that imply different solutions

in similar contexts, in order to bypass the local influence of specific variables

(such as ruling political parties, etc), and also to compare and contrast other


The variables that must be taken into account include the form of the

state; the judicial systems governing church–state relations; the status of religious

minorities; differences in the laws covering citizenship; the percentages

of migrant and foreign populations; and the length of the period of immigration

(when it started, how it began and how it has changed over the years and generations).

It is important, in this sense, to have a common comparative framework,

but, as we shall see, these variables are far from providing a definitive explanation.

Conflicts and disputes regarding the question of mosques in Europe are

present in countries with formal church–state relations (such as concordats or

other agreements) as well as those operating other systems; and they occur both

in countries with a long history of immigration (such as those of central and northern

Europe) and in countries where immigration is more recent, such as those in

the Mediterranean region. It is therefore important to compare countries that have

similar systems and situations in terms of the presence of migrants and Muslim

populations, but which operate different policies as a result of different political

situations (eg Italy and Spain). At the same time, great care should be taken over

less studied countries, for which literature is scarce or rarely translated, but in

which changes in policies towards Islam and new trends are emerging.

To allow for a better comparison of the cases studied, an identical analysis

grid was given to all researchers. At the same time, for each country, an analysis

was requested covering a number of specific cases of conflict in greater depth.

The choice of cases analysed, and the criteria according to which this was carried

out, were agreed on a case by case basis with the research coordinator on the

basis of different criteria – in terms of their representativeness compared with

other similar cases but also in terms of their significant peculiarities. A criterion


of proximity over time also prevailed, even if more temporally distant cases were

also analysed in order to see if there had been changes in issues triggering conflicts

and in their management and outcomes. For older cases in particular, and

for the best studied countries in any case, reference was made to the literature,

not particularly abundant, but significant at least in certain contexts.

Empirical studies were carried out in the following places:

Spain: Premia de Mar, Mataro, Bermejales –– (Seville), Lleida

–– Italy: Colle Val d’Elsa, Genoa, Brescia, Padua

–– Greece: the Great Mosque (Athens), minor Athenian mosques, Komotini

and other cases in Thrace

–– Austria: Bad Voslau, Bludenz (Vorarlberg)

–– Bosnia Herzegovina: Ustikolini, the King Fahd mosque and the Ciglane

mosque in Sarajevo

–– Belgium: Bastogne, Neder over Hembeek, Borgerhout (Antwerp)

–– Sweden: Gothenburg (three different mosques)

Although other studies were not planned, for countries in which studies were

mainly carried out through literature, we asked researchers to examine some

important cases in depth. The following instances were examined:

–– France: Roubaix, Bobigny

–– Germany: Cologne, Bochum

–– United Kingdom: Newham (East London), Stoke on Trent

–– Netherlands: Driebergen (the Hacy Bayram and Nasr mosques) and

Rotterdam (the Essalam mosque)

Many other empirical instances of conflict were analysed using available




1 Results of the research

1.1 Defining the mosque in Europe

The first problem that arises is defining what we mean by a mosque. We do not

expect to find an exhaustive and universally shared definition: put simply, a

shared definition does not exist, certainly not in non Islamic countries, the focus

of our research. Here we will use an extensive and commonsense criterion: all

places open to the faithful, in which Muslims gather together to pray on a regular

basis, will be considered to be mosques. We are aware that this definition contains

an inevitable margin of error, but at the same time it is more meaningful and

more comprehensive of the dimensions and dynamics of the phenomenon we are

discussing. It appeals to the principal function – prayer – and its collective and

public aspect.2

Within the category of mosque, a number of differences are discernible.

Employing a scale of decreasing importance, the first element is that of ‘Islamic

centre’. By an Islamic centre we mean a centre of significant size, which has, in

addition to the function of prayer and worship, a number of social and cultural

functions through various forms of gathering (a Koranic school; courses and

meeting opportunities for adults, women and converts; conferences and other

2 This is what usually causes a problem for the opponents of mosques. They never say that they

are against the fact that Muslims pray – ‘they should do it at home’ was heard repeatedly by

representatives of the anti Islamic movement; rather, they are against the fact that they do it together

in places open to the public. As they put it, they are not against Islam, they are against mosques.

18 Conflicts over mosques in europe

educational and cultural activities),3 usually conducted in separate rooms from

the prayer hall itself. Such a centre also carries out the activities of institutional

and symbolic representation of Muslims. Islamic centres are a small but important

part of what we call mosques. Only in major cities might there be more than

one, and often there are none at all. Not infrequently they perform a centralizing

function of representation at a provincial or regional level. Usually, they also

organize special meetings, for example those relating to Islamic holidays.

One category that we often encounter, especially given its significance

in relation to conflicts surrounding places of worship, is that of ad hoc, or purpose built,

mosque, usually with visible signs of a dome and one or more minarets

(the real masgids).4 These may overlap, and are often the same as Islamic centres,

but there are cases of ad hoc mosques that are not organized and structured

Islamic centres, as such centres are not infrequently located in converted buildings

that do not have the visible form of a mosque and where signs of recognition

and external visible clues are limited to a sign or a plaque.

A third category – numerically by far the most significant in all European

countries – is the Islamic musalla, or prayer room. Musallas may be located in

industrial buildings, warehouses, former shops and apartments.5 They may only

serve to host the activity of prayer, but more often other activities are also performed

there (eg Koranic schools and other educational events). Within this category

we also find ‘ethnic’ musallas, which are attended only by members of one

ethnic group, usually on the grounds of language (non Arabophone ethnic groups,

for example). Special mention should be made of the prayer halls or Sufi zawiyas,

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