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Montreuil, France — The dusty patch of weeds and litter may not look like much now, but the site nonetheless carries the hopes and a sense of sweet victory for Muslims in this hardscrabble Paris suburb.
The short story of the construction site is of a years-long legal battle for a mosque that will be the spiritual center for this city’s 12,000-strong Muslim community. But it also reflects a larger hostility across Europe as the continent’s 20 million Muslims seek to anchor the most tangible foundations of their faith — mosques and minarets — on ground that has traditionally nurtured spires and church bells.
In Britain, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Greece and Italy, local residents and far-right groups have launched protests, petitioned courts and submitted legislation to prevent mosque construction.
The reasons range from fears of religious extremism to arguments that minarets have no place in historically Christian — albeit increasingly secular — Europe.
But in other cases, efforts to build mosques have helped unify local communities and better integrate their largely immigrant Muslim populations. Indeed, mosques are becoming a barometer of sorts for whether Europe’s second-largest faith can shape a democratic and multicultural brand of Islam.
“Opposition has been there ever since Muslims came and tried to have mosque prayer halls in neighborhoods all across Europe,” said Saqeb Mueen, an Islamic expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. “Has it waned? It depends on the area and the sense of cohesion between communities.”
In France, the country’s estimated 5 million Muslims — western Europe’s largest — have long complained about the dearth of formal prayer houses, not to mention imams to lead them.
In several French cities, far-right groups have launched legal challenges to building mosques that take years to creep through the courts.
The same tactic was used here in Montreuil in 2003, after the town’s Muslims agreed to build a central mosque to accommodate their swelling numbers. A city councilor from the extremist National Republic Movement party launched a petition that argued the symbolic one-euro (about
$1.30) lease for the grounds violated a 1905 law separating church and state.
Only last year did an appeals court finally allow construction to go ahead.
“Many faithful were afraid of investing because they’d heard about the court case and they thought it wouldn’t be built. But now, we’re moving along,” said Mohamed Abdoulbaki, a slight man from Comoros, an island nation off Africa’s eastern coast, who serves as vice president of the Cultural Federation of Muslims of Montreuil.
With about a quarter of the mosque’s $2.7 million cost collected, construction is expected to begin this fall. Plans call for a cultural center and an Islamic school, to replace a makeshift one now located in a peeling housing project, to be added later.
“The project has united us,” Abdoulbaki said of this city’s s North- and sub-Saharan African immigrants. “Before, everybody was in his corner.”
It also appears to have united this gritty municipality, whose scarred sidewalks are awash with Asian supermarkets, Arab kebab joints and West African women in colorful kaftans. Jewish and Christian leaders, along with the former communist mayor, joined in opposing the lawsuit. Ordinary residents are donating to a new mosque fundraising drive launched in supermarkets.
“There are churches, so why not mosques?” asked 42-year-old Laurent Droulez, a self-described atheist.
But reactions have been sharply different elsewhere.
In Britain, more than 250,000 people signed a petition two years ago against plans to build a “megamosque” near the site of the 2012 Olympic games. Plans to construct another major mosque near a famous Gothic cathedral in Cologne, Germany, have also sparked protests.
In Italy, the anti-immigration Northern League party is lobbying to freeze mosque construction on grounds the prayer halls breed terrorism.
And in Switzerland, a committee has gathered enough signatures — about 115,000 — for the country to hold a referendum on banning minarets.
“Everybody has the right to come together in a special house — the Christians in their churches, the Jews in their synagogues, the Muslims in their mosques,” said Ulrich Schluer, a member of the right-wing Swiss People’s party, who backs the initiative. “The problem is that Islam supports an order of law that partly contradicts our democratic Swiss laws.”
The opposition reflects hardening attitudes towards Muslims in Europe, fed by the terror attacks in the U.S., Madrid and London and the relentless tides of immigrants who arrive here.
A May Gallup Poll found a large majority of French, Germans and Britons did not consider Muslims to be integrated in their societies — even though a significant chunk of Muslims in these countries believe they fit in.
In some parts of Europe “you have an attitude toward the Muslim population that is verging from outright fear to outright hatred,” said Mueen, the Muslim expert.
“And on the other hand, you have a community that is not equipped — because many are first-generation immigrants — to present themselves in a way they can engage with the rest of society. So they’re suffering from a double bind.”
Yet in some cases, Muslims are surmounting the odds.
The Greek parliament has approved plans to build the first mosque in Athens since Ottoman rule centuries ago, although construction has been delayed several times. Spain’s burgeoning North African community is also going ahead with plans for Catalonia’s first mosque, despite opposition.
Even staunchly secular Muslims have tuned into the mosque construction debate, Mueen said, aware it reflects deeper misgivings.
“There is a sense of frustration and puzzlement that there is so much opposition to mosques,” he said. “If you can have synagogues, then why not mosques?”
By Elizabeth Bryant
Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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