Now for the Mega Mosque
by Irfan Al-Alawi
This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.
Stephen Crittenden: Welcome to the program.
It's interesting that so many strong Muslim women are at the forefront of debates about reforming Islam at present; Irshad Manji and Ayah Hirsi Ali, for example. But none is more hated by the Islamic reactionaries than Syrian-born doctor, long resident in the United States, Dr Wafa Sultan.
Last year, Wafa Sultan was named in 'Time' Magazine's list of 100 influential people whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world. She first came to prominence appearing on al-Jazeera, speaking from Los Angeles and doing battle with all comers. Here she is on Danish television last year.
Wafa Sultan: Islam is not only a religion, Islam also a political ideology that preaches violence and applies its agenda by force. I have never criticised the religious part of Islam, I respect the religious part of Islam as much as I respect any other religion. But I believe we have to take the political power out of Islam and confine it as a religion to worship places and homes. This is the only solution.
Interviewer: Does Islam have a role to play in the modern world do you think?
Wafa Sultan: I have very different point of view regarding this matter, and I was advised by so many friends to polish my message and to soften my way of saying it. I tried, but I failed. I see the truth as naked, and I feel it more powerful to stay naked. I cannot just in order to make it look better, put a nicer dress on it. So I'm going to say it directly, the way I used to do it. I don't believe Islam can be reformed, I really don't. I believe Islam shall be transformed, and it will take serious religious leaders and very well educated people to cause the transformation. If Islam was transformed absolutely, it will have a role to play in our world.
Stephen Crittenden: Dr Wafa Sultan, speaking on Danish television last year around the time of the Mohamad cartoon controversy. And that's very mild in comparison with her television performances in Arabic, a number of which you can see with subtitles on YouTube.
Well last week Wafa Sultan was in Australia, in what her handlers described as an 'under-the-radar visit', briefing senior ministers and parliamentarians from both sides in Canberra; business leaders and Christian and Jewish religious and community leaders. Her message about Islam was that it is not a religion but a political movement, and that complacency here in Australia is not an option. And apparently she found the level of understanding of the subject amongst our leaders, to be very high.
Well Wafa Sultan didn't manage to escape our radar, and we very nearly got an interview, but it was cancelled at the last minute for security reasons. We just thought you'd like to know she was here.
Today on the program we're looking at what is a recent phenomenon, the emergence of the cathedral-mosque, or mega-mosque, in Europe in particular, and often rubbing shoulders with famous Christian landmarks in old European cities.
In recent months there's been controversy and protest around numerous building proposals: for a cathedral-mosque in Marseilles and others in Lyons, Cologne, and the daddy of them all in East London. There's also been a long drawn-out court case in Boston.
In all these cases the local government has been a strong supporter of development and protesters have cited security fears, incompatible architecture and even that these projects are deliberately intended to alter the landscape of Europe's old cities. In the German city of Cologne, home to one of the great European cathedrals, opposition began on the political far right, but by now it's much more widespread. Cologne's Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Meisner has said that the thought of a large mosque with three-storey minarets in sight of his cathedral, makes him feel a little queasy.
Well Joachim Frank is the Editor of the newspaper Kolner Stadt-Anzeiger.
Joachim Frank: The mosque is intended to have place for about 2,000 believers, and it is intended to have a dome of about 35 metres high and two minarets about 55 metres high, and it's located in the traditional quarter of Cologne, about 5 kilometres apart from the cathedral.
Stephen Crittenden: It sounds like there's particular concern about the minarets.
Joachim Frank: The minarets are a kind of symbol of power and influence which Islam or Muslim community wants to show in confrontation to the German society. Others say that it is a kind of self-conscious approach towards the German society, and now the debate is whether they should be shortened a bit so that the symbol isn't so directly confrontative.
Stephen Crittenden: And is the building intended to be a traditional Ottoman design, or a more modern building? Because it's meant to have a glass dome, a bit like your Reichstag in Berlin.
Joachim Frank: A bit similar. The design is very frankly and openly dedicated to what the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul is like, Ottomanic type of mosque, but it's conformed, or it's transposed into modern figures. So you're right, it has to be as a glass dome and the dome itself, it's very open and is like a flower, maybe you can imagine, like a rose and the flowers. Those who are for the mosque say that it is a modern design, a modern architecture which sits very well into the quarter, because the mosque will be surrounded by huge buildings as for example the TV tower, about 270 metres high, and there are bureau architecture with about 80, 90 metres high, so the 55 metres minarets and the 35 metres dome will not have such an influence on the surrounding. But the opponents say that it will change the whole appeal of the quarter because it will be situated right at the entrance to the quarter from the main street, from the main road.
Stephen Crittenden: Tell me about the opposition to the mosque. It's been reported by the media as coming from the political far right; is that true? Or is it much broader opposition than that?
Joachim Frank: In the beginning there was a broad conscience of the democratic parties from the left to the right, that this mosque has to be built, and only the far right wing group which is called pro-Cologne, pro-Kolner, which is somewhere ridiculous in itself, but they call themselves in this way, so pro-Cologne, were the only group opposing it. Then in April, the same as publisher Ralph Giordano of Jewish origin, in a TV debate with our newspaper, said that it is totally contrary, and that he won't have this mosque in Cologne, because of the negative influence of Islam on the German society, and as a symbol of power and so on, and then it came out that protest of the arguments against the mosque, are as you said, far broader and located in the society than only on the extreme right.
Stephen Crittenden: Now you mentioned Giordano, he said that building a mosque like this, especially a large mosque, will be a political statement, an expression of creeping Islamisation of Germany. Is there a view in fact that large mosques like this are actually being proposed precisely in order to change the cultural landscape?
Joachim Frank: I think we have to say two things: on the one hand, up to these days the Muslims in Germany have to come together for their Friday's prayer in suburbs and not within the cities. And they don't have so many representative mosques in Germany, although for example in Cologne, they are 10 percent Muslims, but they don't have a representative mosque, and therefore there's a broad conscience within the Cologne public that they should have kind of representative building. But on the other hand some say that this mosque, with this dome and its minarets, it's too large.
Stephen Crittenden: Joachim, when I was last in Germany in cities like Berlin or Cologne, the Muslim population is visible but it's kept in the background. You mentioned that their mosques tend to be in the suburbs. Very different from France I think, where the Muslim population is more visible in the centre of the cities. Do you think that's a fair assessment, and do you think that's perhaps how the Germans would like it to stay?
Joachim Frank: When the Muslims came to Germany 30 years ago, especially the Turks, the Germans had them as guestworkers; they expected them to return sometime, and they didn't have them as citizens. And this approach changed within the last ten years. Germany is an immigration country. Other type is Australia or Canada or the United States, but it is an immigration country and those who came as guestworkers, won't return in the second and the third generation, and therefore they have to be an integral part of the German society, and their search for expressions of this being part of the German society, and building religious buildings is an expression for that. The President of the Jewish community once said 'Those who build are going to stay', and I think for the German society it's a good sign that these guests are going to stay.
Stephen Crittenden: And so what do you think? Do you think that a large mosque like this is likely to promote integration, or to impede it?
Joachim Frank: It depends on what they do in this mosque. There is a high debate in Cologne that they should be open, and they should preach in German, so that everyone can follow it, and that they should practice hospitality and so on; what they teach the pupils in the Qu'ran school, that is most important I think, and on the other hand when they practice hospitality when they say 'Come to us and look what we are doing' and they have an interesting architecture, it will be a sign of integration, but it can be of course the contrary, that they are going to close themselves against the rest of the community.
Stephen Crittenden: And Joachim, what does the Catholic church in Cologne think about having such a large mosque so close to one of the most famous cathedrals in Europe?
Joachim Frank: The distance is far enough, so that it won't have any influence on the cathedral. The Catholic Cardinal, they say that every religion has the right to practice their religion openly and in an atmosphere, which is adequate to the practice. So they are in favour of the mosque. They say that the equality of religion should be respected by the State.
Stephen Crittenden: What about the security considerations of a mosque like this? I mean I know there aren't nearly as many concerns about Turkish Muslims in Germany as perhaps there are from Arabic or Pakistani Muslims in other European cities. But you know, one of the things that's I think debated is whether a large mosque in the centre of town is much better than a whole lot of tiny backyard mosques, or storefront mosques.
Joachim Frank: Oh yes, it's a very important argument. So you know what they are doing and where they are doing it, therefore you have where I live and other quarters of Cologne there is a mosque two streets from where I live, and this is a very conservative approach of Islam, and nobody in the quarter knows exactly what they are doing there and what they are teaching, the Imam and so on, so of course it would be better to have a central mosque where everyone knows what they are doing and as you put it, the greatest majority of the Muslims in Cologne and in Germany are Turkish, so the extremist wing or extremist parties, when it exists, is very small. On the other hand, we have to say that the Turkish State, by means of its Ministry of Religion has a certain and decisive influence on the whole community and the whole Turkish community here.
Stephen Crittenden: And do Germans think that's a good thing, by the way?
Joachim Frank: On the one hand yes, because the Turkish State, is against any extremist practice of Islam, but on the other hand, it's strange that a foreign State, as the Turkish State, have a branch of its ministry within a German society, with a clear influence and with no control by the German authorities.
Stephen Crittenden: Thank you very much for being on the program.
Joachim Frank: Thank you.
Stephen Crittenden: The Editor of the Kolner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper, Joachim Frank.
Well meanwhile in East London, plans are under way to build the largest mosque in Europe, right alongside the site for the 2012 Olympic Games. The new mega mosque will cover 17 acres, and hold 12,000 worshippers in its first phase, four times as many as Britain's largest cathedral. Opponents say the times require self-reflection and soul searching, not a triumphalist race to dominate the public square, and there have been many opponents, 200,000 people have signed a petition on the website of No.10 Downing Street against the mosque.
They are particularly concerned that the group that wants to build the mosque, a radical fringe group with origins in India and Pakistan, called Tablighi Jamaat, has links to terrorism. A number of the bombers on the London Underground were associated with Tablighi Jamaat, as was the shoe bomber, Richard Reid.
Tablighi Jamaat is a separatist group whose large mosque in the north of England was built many years ago with Saudi money, and opponents of the group say it has been the centre from which much of the radicalisation of Muslims in the north of England has emanated, and that the new East London mosque will be a recruitment ground for Jihad all over Europe.
And this is where the story gets really interesting: the mosque project does not have the support of mainstream British Muslims. But where Tablighi Jamaat is getting its support is from the left-wing Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.
Dr Irfan al Alawi is International Director for the Centre of Islamic Pluralism. He says British Muslims don't need another mega mosque in the middle of London's Olympic Village.
Irfan al Alawi: First of all there is no need for such a mega mosque in the City of London. It's not even architectural for Islamic mosque, it doesn't have any dome, it doesn't have any minarets, in particular, where they're going to build it, it's going to be close to the Olympic stadium. We don't have that many Muslims in the area who will be accommodated between 40,000 to 70,000 people. What they've also of course told us, they've denied the fact it was going to be between 40,000 to 70,000, so what they're going to do initially is apply for 12,000 accommodation and then perhaps in the second and third year running, allow for an expansion.
My major concern is that Tablighi Jamaat has been linked with terrorism activities in Pakistan, Jamaat-e-Islami, Lashkar-e-Taiba and so forth. These are the organisations which train radicals and send them to Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries -
Stephen Crittenden: And linked to terrorist activities in Britain, isn't that right?
Irfan al Alawi: Of course, absolutely, yes. I mean we have significant proof that after 7/7, the London train bombings, most of the people who were arrested or who were involved with these, were not from the mainstream Sunni background, they were from either the Ahli Hadith or Salafis which is known otherwise as Wahhabi of Saudi Arabia, or the Tablighi Jamaat.
Stephen Crittenden: Let's look at the design, Irfan. This is not a traditional Ottoman dome with minarets, is it? It appears to be a modern building. Surely a lot of British people would see that as a good thing.
Irfan al Alawi: Well yes, I agree with you on that side. But the issue here is this is deliberately done so that the British people will accommodate this mosque in this London city. On the other hand Ali Mangera who was the architect, from what I gather, was sacked because of him making a statement that he was actually hired to design a mosque, which will accommodate between 40,000 to 70,000 people. However on the other hand the committee has recently denied this, and say Ali Mangera has absolutely made the story up, and lied.
Stephen Crittenden: I just want to stay with this architectural question and the question of the urban landscape in London as well. Also to think about the other major mosque projects in Europe at the moment, in Cologne, in Lyons, in Marseilles, that are causing similar controversy, are we seeing in fact all over Europe at the moment, a kind of race now, to dominate the public square?
Irfan al Alawi: I think what's happening is perhaps not dominate, but the other word we can use is perhaps to have a symbol to represent Muslims in the west, or Europe I would say. And this is deliberately being done by the Wahhabis, or the people like Al-Muhajiroun and other groups which have affiliated themselves to extremism which would mean that they want to enforce Islamic religion which they have by radicalisation to establish a Caliphate. And Islam was never spread by the sword, it was always with peace, love and harmony. I don't personally think why on earth do we need so many mosques? I mean let me give you an example: in England we have about 1500 mosques. These are spread out from north of England all the way to the south, which is the City of London and we have about 2-million Muslims. Now why on earth would we want to have a mosque which will accommodate 40,000 people and as the same issue which I would be interested in, in France or any other country.
Stephen Crittenden: Here in Sydney, our largest mosque has become a political force in its own right. Arguably to the detriment of smaller Muslim communities elsewhere in Australia. It sort of sucks up all the available oxygen. Is that the purpose of a building like this?
Irfan al Alawi: I think yes, you could say it is in so many aspects. But you see the issue here is that what we should be very cautious about, these mosques recently being sprung up in the west, in Europe, where is the funding coming from, especially if it's coming from Saudi Arabia, if it's coming from the Indian subcontinent like Pakistan, if it's coming from Jamaat-e-Islami.
Stephen Crittenden: And where is the funding coming from in this case?
Irfan al Alawi: OK, now the mega mosque, the original funding was supposed to have come 100-million pounds, from Saudi Arabia. However when we brought this into the public limelight, it's gone very quiet now.
Stephen Crittenden: So is the big story in all of this really, that this group, Tablighi Jamaat is in fact a radical fringe group and that this project doesn't have the support of most mainstream Muslims in Britain. Is that really the story?
Irfan al Alawi: Absolutely, yes. I mean the majority of the Muslims who live in the United Kingdom are mainstream. But the danger is, the Tablighi Jamaat is moving far quickly than the mainstream, and they're doing a lot of work by publishing literature, by having a lot of door-to-door call-ons, and calling on people to convert to Islam. And what is frightening is a lot of British people don't know the difference between who are the Tablighi Jamaat and who are the mainstream Muslims.
Stephen Crittenden: You compared them to the Jehovah's Witnesses, that's a very interesting analogy. From what I can find out, they don't talk to the press, and they're very big on separatism, which makes it interesting that they'd want to build such a big mosque.
Irfan al Alawi: Yes. Now why I say it's somewhat similar to Jehovah's Witnesses is because they hold camps at their madrassas or mosques, or even schools during the summer holidays or even on the weekends, which attracts hundreds of youth, and what happens is, they go around the local neighbourhood areas, knocking on people's doors and trying to attract them to come to the mosque, in their own languages, be it whatever language they speak, because they are international students who attract these big crowds. Now the very reason why they sort of keep away from the publicity is because they are very private in their meetings, they're very private in their beliefs. It's a party which has become very political, while very much interested in establishing Islamic States, they want Khashmir, they want Afghanistan, and the other thing that we have to look by here is they are very strong followers of Jihad, and Jihad means that they're very interested in if ever Pakistan or Afghanistan were able to declare Jihad, a Holy War, they would want their members in either America, Australia, in England, to go and leave those countries and go and fight the Holy War. And this is what it's all about. They are very loyal members.
Stephen Crittenden: Now it seems to me that another big question here given what you're describing, is that you've got this fairly radical fringe group that's not supported by mainstream British Muslims, but this group is being a given a leg-up by Ken Livingstone, and the City government.
Irfan al Alawi: Right. Now Ken Livingstone, he doesn't know what on earth Tablighi Jamaat is about. I mean I was there, I had a dialogue with Ken Livingstone myself, and I asked him how much of the essence does he know about Tablighi Jamaat, and because he's a politician, he wants to gain his votes, because he's got an election coming up and he knows the only way he can win by election if he gives the Muslims in that area what they require. And don't forget the Councillors for the City Council in Newham are belonging to the Tablighi Jamaat group. So as a politician, he's trying to have them, it's like you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. But in actual fact he's not listening to the majority of the general public who have voted on the major Downing Street website, there's a petition that no-one is interested in this mega mosque.
Stephen Crittenden: Yes, there have been some setbacks for the project in recent weeks. What is likely to be the future of it, what is Gordon Brown likely to do in fact?
Irfan al Alawi: OK, the reason why there have been some setbacks is because they're getting a lot of bad publicity from people like me, people of Alan Craig, who is the local councillor, and I think they realise that now what they've done is basically got a PR agency called Indigo, for their own public relations, press releases and so forth. And I think the chances first of all for it to go ahead are a little more slimmer than what they were perhaps four, five months ago. But that is not an indication for us to say OK we can sleep over it. Gordon Brown of course he's interested in his election which is going to be coming soon; just like David Cameron who's trying to call an election in October, they're all interested in their votes. Now although I'm very strongly against what this British government is trying to have this multicultural word that they use, or Ken Livingstone uses, I personally think that if they want to get rid of radicalisation and if they want to stop this particular mosque going ahead and other organisations operating within the UK, like Al-Muhajiroun or Hizb ut-Tahrir which is still not banned, which is still not banned, then they have to stop these three groups, which is Tablighi Jamaat, Jamaat-e-Islami, and Wahhabism.
Now I personally think the only country who's really hard on these groups is the United States. When you've got extremist HT, Al-Muhajiroun, Jemaat-e-Islami, Wahhabi, Tablighi Jamaat moving in, are we going to let these people walk away and say OK, we'll decide for ourselves, are these people safe? Because it will be too late. It's a time bomb which is ticking.
Stephen Crittenden: On the question of the security issues around a mosque like this, I wonder whether having a lot of Muslims praying in one place in a great big mosque, where surveillance if necessary is easy, it's a much better thing than having this sort of proliferation in towns like Birmingham and Leeds and Bristol and so on of little storefront mosques?
Irfan al Alawi: Well in some sense maybe I might agree with you up to a certain limit, but I think it's virtually impossible to say that we could have these Tablighi Jamaat people monitored if they're going to be all sort of coming under one roof. The reason being is because it's going to be an Islamic centre for recruitment, and what will happen is eventually people will be coming from north, from east, from south, and they will go back and establish their own centres. I mean what we have in the north of England is like a separatist movement, we have the Muslim slums, the ghettoes, and this is where they've established small madrassas or the corner mosques, what I call them. Because of one particular mosque which is the Dewsbury Markaz which was established many, many years ago, so the danger if the mega mosque goes ahead it will be a recruitment ground to establish more of the mosques, not only in England, but in the West, it could be Denmark, it could be France and so forth. And of course France has always said that Tablighi Jamaat has political terrorism activities. And I don't understand why Britain is so lenient.
Stephen Crittenden: Dr Irfan al Alawi, the International Director of the Centre of Islamic Pluralism.
Well that's all this week, thanks to producers John Diamond and Hagar Cohen.
Next week, an interview with the retired Sydney Catholic bishop, the much-admired Jeffrey Robinson. He was the man who was handed the terrible job of working out how to respond to the clerical sexual abuse crisis. He's written a much-anticipated new book about abuse and power and sexual teachings, and many people are expecting it to be explosive.
Now on ABC Radio National it's time to say good bye.