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Islam in Europe: An Interview With Arzu Toker on the Cologne Mosque

Friday, Aug. 17, 2007
The plans of an Islamic association to build an imposing "Central Mosque" in Cologne are the subject of ongoing controversy in Germany. The mosque design features a giant 35 meter high dome flanked by two 55 meter high minarets. Much of the initial public opposition to the mosque project was organized by "Pro Cologne": a political movement that local authorities have classified as "right-wing extremist" -- a common euphemism in Germany for neo-Nazi groups. Last May, however, the controversy over the Cologne mosque project took on a new dimension when the renowned German journalist and historian of the Third Reich, Ralph Giordano, joined the ranks of the mosque critics. Giordano argued that the mosque project sent the "wrong signal" and claimed that the integration of Muslims in Germany had "failed." As proof for his claim, he pointed to the presence of fully veiled women on the streets of Cologne, whom he described as resembling "human penguins." "I do not want to see women wearing burqas on German streets!" Giordano exclaimed.

Giordano's remarks provoked a wave of indignation and accusations that he was making common cause with Nazis and racists. These accusations were made all the more piquant by the fact that the 84-year-old Giordano's own first-hand experience of Nazi racial persecution as the son of a Jewish mother is the core theme of his writings. But according to the Turkish-born author and Cologne resident Arzu Toker, there are also many opponents of the mosque project to be found among the very people whom Germany's Islamic associations are presumed to represent: namely, the some 3 million or so residents of Germany, the majority of them of Turkish descent, who are commonly described as "Muslims," whether they practice Islam or not. Toker, a critic of the increasing influence of the Islamic associations in German public life, is the co-chair of the Central Council of Ex-Muslims of Germany. She spoke with the German monthly Konkret.

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Konkret: Are you surprised that Ralph Giordano's remarks provoked such vehement reactions?

Toker: No. In the first place, Germans have a problem with Jews. When a well-known Jewish personality like Ralph Giordano says something, every word is placed under the microscope. If someone claims that they have found a problem, then there is a huge scandal. In the second place, Islamists have a problem with Jews. If you take a look in the Quran, you will find that there are maybe 30 anti-Christian verses, whereas there are hundreds of anti-Jewish verses. Animosity toward Jews is a central element of the Islamic faith. Then you add to this another factor: Although there are very few Jews in Germany, they are - as a result of the Holocaust - represented in all socially-relevant bodies. The Muslims in Germany, who are far more numerous, feel that they are not adequately represented, so they regard Jews with mistrust and envy.

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Ralph Giordano on Talkshow "Streit im Turm", May 16, 2007

Konkret: Why do some people say that Cologne has to have a mosque?

Toker: There is not a single verse in the Quran that sets out the requirement of a mosque. Muslims could just as well pray in a park, for example. The building is not necessary. Mosques first came into being when Muslims conquered Christian and Jewish territories where there were already churches or synagogues and they converted them into mosques. What is going on in Cologne is a demonstration of power. The Islamic associations are on the rise. They already have a seat at the negotiating table with the government and now they think they are powerful enough to have a mosque in the middle of town.

Konkret: And why are you against the mosque?

Toker: It is not about the building. It's about politics. I am not against it because I don't like the architecture, but because of what is taught in mosques. Five times a day, one is called to prayer with the words "There is only one Allah and Mohammed is his prophet." The call to prayer is thus necessarily tied to the negation of Christianity. How can that be acceptable? The Muslims could say "No, we don't deny Christianity", but they are completely incapable of critical self-reflection. Besides, nothing positive has ever come out of the mosques: calls for social integration, for instance. On the contrary, what comes out of the mosques is always alienated from the surrounding society. Apart from that, mosques are the domain of men: the men sit up front and the women in the back, banned behind a curtain.

Konkret: What is being said about the mosque project among so-called "German Muslims"?

Toker: The worst part is that this discussion is only taking place among at most some 30,000 people. The rest of the 3.2 million Muslims who live in this country have nothing to do with it. There are thousands of modern Turkish women in Germany who pretend to be Spaniards or Italians and are ashamed to say they are Turkish, because they find the whole discussion embarrassing and do not want to have anything to do with Islam. Many Turkish women try to stay inconspicuous, because the image of the "German Muslim" - thanks in part to [German Interior Minister Wolfgang] Schäuble - is completely and utterly determined by the 30,000 organized Muslims in the Islamic associations. It's absurd: the radical minority dominates the liberal majority.

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Arzu Toker

Konkret: Are Turkish women in Cologne putting up resistance to the construction of the mosque?

Toker: Turkish society has undergone a kind of distorted development that already began with the founding of Turkey. In 1923, the separation of church and state was imposed against the violent resistance of the Islamists. The Islamic rebellion was suppressed, but there was no Enlightenment. Many Turks know what religious festivals they are supposed to observe, but they don't know why. Religiosity gets expressed exclusively in fear: the "fear of God." Islam is very well suited to spreading fear, because the Quran is full of threats.

Konkret: Is that why the resistance against the construction of the mosque is relatively limited?

Toker: Yes. Many people are waiting to see if people like me are able to accomplish something. When I'm walking through town, people often say to me: "Good for you. Keep on doing what you're doing. I would help, except I have children" - as if I didn't have children. They justify their inaction by their fear. So, when I speak out, I'm speaking out not only for myself, but also on behalf of thousands and thousands of people who are afraid to do so.

Konkret: Do you worry about finding yourself in the company of right-wing extremist groups like "Pro Cologne"?

Toker: I have never met them and I don't want to have anything to do with them. But I worry a lot more that such groups are serving as a refuge for many people who are not at all right-wing extremists, but who feel that their concerns have not been understood by the SPD, the CDU and the Greens. People who want to say no to Islam, but to whom the established parties refuse to listen.

Konkret: In Cologne, "public hearings" have been held on the mosque project...

Toker: These meetings have been dominated by the Islamic associations, who come prepared and well-organized and with numbers. As consequence, many Cologne residents who are critical are afraid to say anything. Most of them are not so eloquent that they could stand up before hundreds of people and provide an airtight explanation as to why they are worried about the mosque or about women covered in veils. But their fears are justified. Veiled women are an insult to the surrounding environment: above all, they are an insult to men, since they suppose that men are born sex offenders.

Arzu Toker was born in East Anatolia, Turkey and has lived in Germany since 1974. She is a freelance journalist and co-Chair of the Central Council of Ex-Muslims of Germany. The above interview first appeared in the July issue of the German monthly Konkret. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.

Top photo: A model of the planned Cologne mosque.