The two-story, beige brick structure that houses the Imam Al-Khoei Foundation school and mosque squats alongside the Van Wyck Expressway in Queens, not far from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Few motorists on the busy highway would notice the mosque but for its minaret and gleaming blue dome, which stand out in that drab and commercial Jamaica neighborhood. The Islamic Center’s architectural flourishes caught my eye recently as I drove to JFK for a flight to the West Coast. (A minaret is the tower-like structure erected next to or on the roof of a mosque. Traditionally, it is the place from which the call to prayer is issued five times a day.)
People of all faiths adorn their religious schools and houses of worship with symbols and stylistic elements that announce: We are here. Some of the symbols, such as a crucifix, are overtly pious. But many others are just features that, over time, come to be associated with specific faiths. These include Christian church bells and steeples, stained glass windows popular with Christians and Jews, Buddhist pagodas, Russian Orthodox onion domes, and Muslim minarets. Very often, these landmarks are treasured by people of all religions for the beauty they lend to an entire community.
But lately, in some parts of Europe, minarets have become focal points in an age-old culture war between those who want to maintain a homogeneously Christian atmosphere (and who may be overlooking the Holocaust that helped give rise to that homogeneity in the 20th century) and others who are more welcoming and tolerant.
One such battle is being fought in the small industrial town of Volklingen, Germany, where an old movie theater has been transformed into a mosque. But, at least for now, it is a mosque without a minaret.
Last year Swiss citizens approved a referendum that added a ban on minaret construction to the country’s constitution. In spite of Parliament’s official disapproval of the ban, it was approved by 57.5 percent of voters. The Swiss constitution, which in its preamble states that the Swiss people are “determined to live together with mutual consideration and respect for their diversity,” now also specifies that building minarets is prohibited.
When the Muslim congregation of Volklingen applied for a building permit to erect a 28-foot minaret, local residents began to agitate for a ban similar to Switzerland’s, with some opponents referring to the minaret as “the bayonet of Islam.” Fearing a possible backlash, the mosque dropped its construction plans, seeking to improve community relations before moving forward with the project.
In the lead-up to the Swiss referendum, proponents of the ban distributed posters critical of Islam, including one featuring a woman in an abaya standing in front of a Swiss flag studded with minarets styled to look like missiles. The ban’s supporters seized on a section of a 1992 speech in which Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, who later became prime minister of Turkey, said, “Mosques are our barracks, domes our helmets, minarets our bayonets, believers our soldiers. This holy army guards my religion.”
Those who advocate for restrictions on minaret construction beyond the ordinary guidelines of building codes claim that such restrictions do not infringe religious freedom because the minaret is not a necessary part of a mosque. “The construction of a minaret has no religious meaning. Neither in the Qur'an, nor in any other holy scripture of Islam is the minaret expressly mentioned at any rate,” wrote the Egerkinger Committee, a group of Swiss citizens that campaigned for the ban. Ridvan Carpar, a Muslim resident of Volklingen, also admitted, “A mosque is a mosque, whether it has a minaret or not.”
True enough, but churches are not required by scripture to have steeples, either. Should a community that wishes to force a low profile on its Christian residents be permitted to ban steeples?
The residents of Volklingen could perhaps learn something from one of my favorite Canadian sitcoms, “Little Mosque on the Prairie.” The show takes place in the fictional town of Mercy, Saskatchewan, where a small Muslim community has settled. Through all the comedic episodes that ensue, the Muslim and non-Muslim residents of Mercy learn that they have more in common than appearances would suggest.
While the plans to build a minaret and three golden cupolas on the roof of Volklingen’s former movie theater are on hold for now, this might turn out to be a real-life learning experience not unlike the fictional goings-on in Mercy. The people of Volklingen might discover that their town looks better once it can boast that it has a mosque with a minaret.