by Ben Knight
Sitting in his makeshift office, big-bellied Birol Ucan has developed an ebullient optimism for addressing the media. This attitude is probably necessary for the press-spokesman of an obscure Arab organisation building a new mosque in Berlin. “We thought this room would make a good hairdresser’s,” he says, indicating the waist-high power sockets and the plumbing in the wall beside us. “We don’t have a tenant yet, but it’s cheaper to install fixtures in advance.” This potential barbershop is one of the shop-fronts being installed on the ground floor of the shiny new Maschari Center currently being built by the Islamic group Al-Habash next to Görlitzer Bahnhof in Kreuzberg, Berlin.
Standing up, Ucan leads me along a glass corridor behind the retail spaces (soon to be a grocery store and a café, he promises) to the lobby, which, with its revolving door, wall-to-wall tiling and reception desk, would suit any mid-range hotel chain. “Looks nice, doesn’t it?” Ucan remarks, before swinging a flabby arm towards the mosque itself, where a couple of builders look up from their circular saws in a cloud of fine building dust. “Mecca is that way,” he points to a large alcove taking up one corner of the hall. The mosque will host Sunni services, in Turkish and Arabic, despite Al-Habash’s Arab origin.
The majority of Kreuzberg’s Muslims are Turkish Sunni, but Al-Habash is an eccentric presence in the Islamic world. One of the few Islamic groups without a militia or a declared enmity to Israel, it is sometimes seen in the West as a peaceful influence in the Lebanon, its home country. But Al-Habash is ostracised by orthodox Muslims, who regard its mixture of Sunni and Shia doctrine and its idiosyncratic interpretation of the Qur’an as blasphemous.
There are six more floors above Birol and me, with various large function rooms – “for funerals or weddings” – and a roof terrace. Like most of the new mosques being built in Germany, this is a multi-functional community centre as much as a house of worship.
Germans have recently started grumbling publicly about the construction of these large, more visible new mosques all over their country. There has been talk of “creeping Islamisation” and the creation of “parallel societies”. The increasingly open insinuation is that shadowy Islamic groups with unaccounted-for wealth are bankrolling gaudy, unnecessary buildings in order to consciously colonise innocent, secular German communities. Even the multi-functionalism of these buildings is seen as an attempt to draw Muslims away from the influence of western society. It is portrayed as nothing less than a conspiracy against the principles of Germany’s social democracy.
Ucan is aware of the prejudices, and takes unprovoked pains to point out that his mosque will strive to lead young Muslims away from radical groups, “who are, unfortunately, also active in Berlin.” Anxiously heading off the expected criticisms, he talks of the German lessons that will be offered here and the architecture that is meant to blend with the Wilhelmine house next door.
This fretful reassurance is surprising, seeing that an unusual tolerance had settled over this development. Where mosques in Cologne, Hamburg and in the Berlin suburb of Pankow have provoked citizens’ initiatives and street demonstrations, this one has been allowed to quietly edge towards completion. That kind of alarmist reaction has been noticeably muted, confined to a few complaints at public meetings.
Perhaps this relative harmony is linked to the new immigrant wealth blossoming in this corner of Kreuzberg. Kreuzberg is getting richer. English, French and Spanish voices are mushrooming under the café-awnings, independent art galleries have elbowed room between Turkish bakeries and plastic-goods stores, and the odour of tapas and sushi now mingles with the smell of kebab grease.
And there are new up-market cafés where the bread has an airy Italian texture, and the brie is not from Aldi. The encroaching gentrification of Kreuzberg is evident everywhere, and while the tight Turkish community that has been dominant here since the seventies is breaking up a little, it is not disappearing. More and more of these new quiche-and-parma cafés are run by Turkish gastronomic entrepreneurs, whose success is based on second or third generation wealth. The new cosmopolitan artists may be bringing money into Kreuzberg, but they are spending more than they are making.
Poor artists and Turks with a living
Ahmet Iyidirli, former SPD candidate for Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain and a Berliner since 1975, links this to the artist’s usual economic instability – “In the last few years, a lot of young creative people have come to Kreuzberg, but that doesn’t mean that these people always earn money. This group is dependent on the general economic situation, which at the moment is insecure.”
But this creative community is increasingly being swelled by young people of Turkish origin who have lived in Berlin all their lives. Kadir Karabulut is a 28-year-old businessman and student who owns a café called Park only a block from the Maschari Center. Opened this spring, Park has been trying to lure Kreuzberg’s citizens with exclusive food, jazz trios and reasonable prices. He has an American girlfriend and is in the middle of an MA thesis in Jewish studies.
Kreuzberg can boast relative success in its integration. Indeed, at least two German attitudes have been successfully adopted by Ahmet and Kadir. First, a weird distrust of something called “multi-kulti romanticism” – both believe that cultural assimilation is necessary for society, and that any other opinion is liberal naivety. Secondly, both suggested that religion is inherently an obstacle to integration. The new mosque round the corner attracts suspicion among many Turks. As Kadir put it, “What bothers me is when Green-voters tolerate very reactionary things in the middle of their society – like imams banning girls from sport lessons at school.” So if you scratch the veneer of this well-integrated district of Berlin, you find some discontented muttering, if more from the secular Turks than the bohemian Germans.
When Ahmet Iyidirli heard how eager Birol Ucan had been to deny Al-Habash’s radical tendencies, he responded, every inch the German bourgeois, “So he should be.”
A slightly different version of this article originally appeared on the website The Local in July 2008.