City of Brass

City of Brass

European mosques and freedom of religion

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

The muslim world, especially the Middle East, is rightly chided for its lack of religious tolerance. One excellent barometer of tolerance is whether minority religions are permitted to construct houses of worship. While some countries in the ME like Jordan are relatively liberal in this regard, others are severely intolerant of competing faiths. A good example is in Saudi Arabia, where churches remain outlawed, despite recent outreach from the Vatican and evidence of churches in antiquity.


Of course, the muslim world is still third world in many respects, on the lagging end of the global wave of liberalization and human rights. You would expect that the more enlightened (and Enlightened) West to score better on these basic issues of religious freedom. Unfortunately, looking at Europe (the cradle of Western civilization) as a case study, we find that religious tolerance (as defined above) hardly fares any better than the Middle East, with success stories as well as outright failures. Consider three continental case studies – Italy, Switzerland, and Germany.

In Italy, the far-right Northern League party (allied with PM Berlusconi) has proposed legislation to severely curtail the construction of new mosques. The author of the legislation, Andrea Gibelli, defends the need for the restrictions as follows:


Gibelli’s bottom line was that building mosques in Italy at the current
rate of expansion was a form of cultural colonisation. He said mosques
“are often places of cultural indoctrination, sometimes linked to
international terrorism.” They get in the way of Muslims integrating
into Italy’s Catholic culture, he said. Anyway, he finally said,
Muslims don’t really need them as the Koran states that they can “pray anywhere.”

Of course, such laws actually do more harm to “cultural integration”, by clearly telling immigrants that they are Others regardless of their loyalty to the state or how much they have contributed to their society by virtue of their labor:


The Northern League has “made life difficult for the Islamic
component (of immigrants in Italy) in every sense and especially with
regards to places of worship”, the president of the Islamic Cultural
Istitute of Milan, Abdel Hamid Sha’ari, told Reuters.

Not just recent or illegal immigrants feel unwelcome, but also
established Muslim residents like Jihad Amro, who said: “I have paid
taxes for 17 years but I still don’t feel at home.”

“There are still situations where I feel uncomfortable or strange
because they (Italians) don’t see me as someone who is integrated,”
Amro, a Palestinian, told Reuters TV in Rome.

The League’s anti-Muslim protests have often made headlines, such
as when Roberto Calderoli, now a cabinet minister, walked his pet pig
on a proposed mosque site to defile the soil or wore a T-shirt of the
Prophet Mohammad, triggering riots in Libya.


Even a planned “Islamic center” in the Tuscan region, which will be funded entirely from the local muslim population, is meeting resistance, despite support from the local authorties, suggesting that antipathy to muslims is deeply engrained.

In Switzerland, the controversy centers on minarets:

A group of right-wing Swiss politicians has launched a campaign to ban the construction of minarets, claiming they are a symbol of power
and threaten law and order.

The attempt to launch a national referendum on minarets has triggered widespread criticism but also attracted some support.


The anti-minaret movement is more prevalent in smaller Swiss towns where the local muslim communities want to build new mosques. In the big cities (Zurich, Geneva) there are large mosques with minarets that would not be affected by the proposed law, which would actually be a constitutional amendment. The complete text of the amendment? Six words: “The construction of minarets is forbidden.”

However, the Swiss government has not seen fit to let the anti-minaret proponents go unchallenged. The federal government issued a 49-page report outlining in exacting legal terms why such a ban would violate the existing Swiss constitution (which is why it is proposed as an amendment rather than a law, note), as well as international human rights standards. The summary of the report is here and in many ways is a blueprint for those who defend religious freedom against right-wing extremist intolerance.


In Germany, there is no legal attempt at outlawing mosques or minarets, and in fact the muslim community is poised to embark on an ambitious round of projects, ranging from a mega-mosque in Cologne to smaller, but utterly breathtaking, projects. The opposition in Germany seems to be driven more by competing religious authorties rather than right-wing political groups (which do exist but are smaller and less powerful, given Germany’s greater political complexity and diversity). Consider the reaction to the Cologne project:

The plan calls for a mosque with prayer space for 2,000, a high
glass and concrete dome and two tall minarets in the Ottoman Turkish
style. It would be flanked by DITIB offices.


“It would not be the biggest mosque in Germany, but it would be the
biggest Muslim centre,” Alboga, DITIB’s official for inter-religious
dialogue, said. “There are 120,000 Muslims in Cologne, the largest
number in any German city.”

The complex got approval from City Hall but met with growing
criticism from Christian leaders and a small far-right group, which
rallied about 150 people to protest against it last month.

Cardinal Meisner said the mosque would change the skyline of
Cologne, a city crowned by its massive Gothic cathedral, even though
the minarets would stand far away in a leafy suburb.

Mainz Cardinal Karl Lehmann, head of the German Bishops Conference,
upset Muslims by saying Germany should not show “uncritical tolerance”
and treat Islam like other religions.


As the article notes, Islam in Germany is “here to stay” and there are over 200 mosque projects being pursued. Some of these are unbelievably outstanding in terms of beauty and architectural design, for example this “broken eggshell” design intended for a Cologne suburb:


or this imposing, minaret-less design for a project in Berlin:

Mosque in Berlin, Germany


These bold designs are a deliberate expression of identity for German muslims, asserting their presence with “confrontational architecture“:

The real issue of debate, however, will be the fact that, stone by
stone and minaret by minaret, Muslims in Germany want to become more
visible — they are no longer content to have their places of worship
largely hidden from public view. In architectural terms, they want to
be part of the cityscape in a way they have never been before.

These exmaples demonstrate a great deal of diversity in terms of tolerance level across Europe, with some countries more backwards than others. However, Der Spiegel does note that the underlying tensions are universal, a conflict between the native European culture and the post-colonial immigrant populations who are expected to “assimilate” but who also remain second-class citizens:


The numerous attempts to block construction illustrate how a smoldering
conflict that otherwise remains hidden from view is being openly waged
in the field of architecture. Wherever you go, the pattern is almost
identical: First there are complaints about encroachments on the urban
environment and haggling over possible locations and the height of
domes and minarets — whether they can be 15, 20 or 55 meters. Or, as
is the case in Munich, it might just be about aesthetic competition
with a nearby church. And, then, the debate moves to the underlying
issue: the locals’ fear of preachers of hate, terrorist attacks, jihad
and the accusation that, with every minaret it builds, Europe is prostrating itself further to the power of Mecca.

You can’t first accuse Muslims of barricading themselves in back rooms and of
refusing to integrate themselves into society
and then criticize them — in areas where they’re been living for two
or three generations — for wanting to build proper houses of worship.
The fact of the matter is that they are putting themselves out in the
public realm. Moreover, having an “invisible” minority culture that the
majority considers practically inscrutable has the much more dangerous
potential of causing problems than does having a minority culture whose
visibility actually lends it a rather ordinary, everyday feel.

It’s precisely that ordinary, everyday Islam that these mosque projects will promote, and will serve the self-interest of both muslims and non-muslims alike. The backlash is less a failure of religious tolerance and more a manifestation of simple fear and anti-immigrant prejudice.


Obama’s Rovian strategy?

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Is the Obama campaign pursuing a Karl-Rove-inspired campaign strategy? This piece at the Christian Science Monitor argues yes, because Obama has opened campaign offices in Michigan college towns:

What does an office in this extremely left-leaning college town – as well as those in other “Campus and Careers” communities – have to do with the well-known Bush aide? Plenty.

In 2000 and particularly 2004, Bush won the White House by bringing
out the Republican base – driving up votes from reliably Republican


Going into the 2008 race, most thought “the base” strategy was over.
Bush’s low approval numbers meant that the Republican nominee, whoever
he was, would have to run more to the center to pick up moderate voters
who had turned against the president.

But on the other side of the ideological street, the Democrats are
not in such a bind, and the Obama campaign knows it. Thus, even as the
Illinois senator plays to the middle (and the middle class) in speeches
and proposals, he is devoting more effort to bringing out his base. And
if this town is any kind of example, it’s working.

Playing a GOTV strategy is hardly a Rovian innovation, however. The
reason there are campaign offices in university towns in Michigan is
because MI is (was) a swing state, and therefore every vote counts, since the candidate who wins the plurality of votes statewide will get all its electoral votes. This is campaign strategy 101, not some rare Rovian innovation.


A true Rovian strategy would be to atttack your opponents’
strengths, the classic example being how the Republicans and the Swift Boat veteran group went after John Kerry for his
military record and making light of his service and purple heart.
In the present campaign, McCain tried this Rovian approach with his short-lived ad series poking fun at Obama’s
celebrity. However, for the most part, McCain has focused on Obama’s perceived and alleged weaknesses (inexperience, character, etc) rather than strengths.

Obama hasn’t really followed the Rove game plan either, focusing more on critiquing McCain’s policies and extolling his own biography. McCain’s perceived strength is primarily his foreign policy judgement, and Obama has critiqued him on that score, pointing out that McCain’s support of the Iraq war was a diversion from the true terror threat in Afghanistan. This is more of discussion of policy differences, however, than an outright attack in Rovian fashion. If anything, McCain’s supposed advantage on foreign policy was undermined more by the fact that Obama shared the debate stage with him and was able to discuss it in articulate and knowledgeable fashion, holding his own. If Obama were truly outmatched, it would have been obvious. In one sense, McCain Roved himself.


Michelle Malkin’s defense of internment

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

defense_internment_malkin.jpgOne of the foundation stones of Islamophobia in conservative circles is, somewhat paradoxically, a book about Japanese-American internment in World War II, by Michelle Malkin. You can read  excerpts from her book online at Google books. Her book is rife with academic errors and selective sourcing – her entire argument was factually debunked, comprehensively and systematically by historians and law professors. The complete rebuttal runs 29 blog posts long.


So, suffice to say that Malkin’s basic historical premise is factually devoid of merit. Why did she write the book in the first place, though? The answer reveals itself in her writings – she is one of’s “Smearcasters” who portray Islam as a fundamental threat to Western values and civilization. She believes Islam is fundamentally hostile to American values as a matter of inherent doctrine, It’s not hard to connect the dots between her book, which lays out a case for dealing with a “fifth column” domestic threat, and her blog/writing, which describes American Islam in exactly those terms. Malkin includes a CYA statement in the introduction about the book not being a direct call to internment of Arabs or muslims, but one look at the cover, with a picture of Mohammed Atta (lead villain of the 9-11 attacks), reveals her intentions as clear as day.

In a nutshell, Malkin is creating what she hopes to be a foundation and precedent for internment of American muslims. There’s more to Islamophobia than rhetoric. There’s an instruction manual.


Obama Derangement Syndrome

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Every presidential candidate comes in for their share of partisan bile from their opponents’ more rabid supporters. The generic term for this is X Derangement Syndrome (example, BDS for Bush, etc) and to some extent it is a manifestation of the political passion that drives the system. It’s surely better than outright, pervasive voter apathy.

However, what’s disturbing about the bile directed at Barack Obama (ODS) is the racial and religious subtext, which was absent for obvious reasons from those afflicted by CDS and BDS. I’ve compiled a list of crazy accusations against Obama elsewhere, but two examples stand out for their common theme.


First, the case of Obama Waffles:

Activists at a conservative political forum snapped up boxes of waffle mix depicting Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama as a racial stereotype on its front and wearing Arab-like headdress on its top flap.

Republican Party stalwarts Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney were among speakers at the forum, which officials said drew 2,100 activists from 44 states.


While Obama Waffles takes aim at Obama’s politics by poking fun at
his public remarks and positions on issues, it also plays off the old
image of the pancake-mix icon Aunt Jemima,
which has been widely criticized as a demeaning stereotype. Obama is
portrayed with popping eyes and big, thick lips as he stares at a plate
of waffles and smiles broadly.

Placing Obama in Arab-like headdress recalls the false rumor that he is a follower of Islam, though he is actually a Christian.

On the back of the box, Obama is depicted in stereotypical Mexican
dress, including a sombrero, above a recipe for “Open Border Fiesta
Waffles” that says it can serve “4 or more illegal aliens.” The recipe
includes a tip: “While waiting for these zesty treats to invade your
home, why not learn a foreign language?”


The novelty item also takes shots at 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, Obama’s wife, Michelle, and Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The Obama campaign declined to comment.

Wearing white chef’s aprons, Whitlock and DeMoss were doing a brisk
business at noon Saturday selling the waffle mix to people crowded
around their booth. Two pyramids of waffle mix boxes stood several feet
high on the booth’s table.

Then, the Obama billboard:


A billboard in West Plains showing a caricature of Democratic
presidential candidate Barack Obama wearing a turban and using his
middle name — Hussein — in quotes has sparked outrage and accusations
of racism.

The sign, located south of West Plains on U.S. 63
across from the Dairy Queen, says: “Barack ‘Hussein’ Obama equals more
abortions, same sex marriages, taxes, gun regulations.”

over the sign triggered West Plains resident Becky Estes to write a
letter in Monday’s edition of the Daily Quill newspaper saying “such a
tasteless display merely reinforces the wide-spread belief that
Ozarkers are ignorant country bumpkins.”


“People don’t like it.
They’re embarrassed by that sign, ashamed by that sign, horrified by
that sign and outraged by that sign,” Estes told the News-Leader on

Estes’ letter sparked responses from locals and
out-of-state former residents in Wednesday’s newspaper. The person who
created the sign remains anonymous.

“I can find nothing wrong
with this sign/cartoon, which is truthful by Obama’s own statements,”
wrote James E. (Jay) Gentry Jr. of Mountain Grove. “If this is
upsetting to Ms. Estes, then she should do some hard thinking about
what is forthcoming if he is elected.”


And of course there’s this poor soul protesting Obama yesterday in Ohio:

The theme here is the same old muslim smear – Obama = muslim = Arab = turbans = threat. Even John McCain, in correcting a supporter who insisted Obama was Arab at a campaign rally, implicitly validated the idea that Arabs and muslims are inherently suspect.

But really, most of the blame for this lies with Barack Obama himself. I argued early on during the primary that Obama could lay the muslim smear to rest by simply saying “I am not a muslim… but so what if I were?” Many in the media are now saying the same thing, but the words need to come from Obama himself, and that’s why the muslim smear persists.

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