Aarhus, Denmark – Muslims living in one of Denmark’s most deprived housing projects say they are being marginalised and made to feel unwelcome in their own community amid fears that their 14-year fight for a mosque could be derailed by political wrangling over an ambitious regeneration plan for the area.
Residents in Gellerup, a suburb of Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, have been campaigning since 2000 for the right to build a mosque in their neighbourhood. They say it would serve not only the needs of a growing Muslim population but also as a “beacon of hope”, a bulwark against extremism and a symbol of their acceptance as Danish citizens.
But their aspirations have been repeatedly stalled by political opposition to the project. Now those behind the latest proposal say that promises made by politicians and city officials that a fresh application to buy land for a mosque would be treated favourably have been broken following objections by right-wing parties on the local council.
On Wednesday, Metin Aydin, the architect working on the mosque design, said he had withdrawn from the project in protest at the failure of local leaders to deliver on commitments they had made to the Muslim community.
“I think what has happened has been disgraceful,” he said. “I am done with working on a project that is not reality. As long as this political circus is going on, there is no chance of realising anything.”
Aarhus is the city behind an innovative welfare programme for Danish Muslims returning from Syria, reported on last month, and police and welfare services there have identified discrimination as the main contributing factor to the radicalisation of young Muslims.
But campaigners for the mosque fear the goodwill of the Muslim community and their right to practise their religion freely are being sacrificed in the interests of maintaining cross-party support for the regeneration masterplan with potentially damaging consequences for social cohesion.
Bigger issue: Acceptance
“It is no longer just a question of mosque or no mosque, we are talking about the acceptance of the Muslim minority,” said Sami Saidana, the chairman of Aarhus’ Federation of Islamic Associations (FIF), which has led the campaign. “It is very important that the politicians give a clear signal to the Muslim community that they are a part of this society. And if they don’t then you risk radicalisation, extremism and bad reactions.”
The current standoff dates back to an application submitted by FIF in May to buy a vacant plot of land in the centre of Gellerup. Those behind the plan say they were encouraged by officials who had already commissioned a study to assess the suitability of the site for a mosque.
But the application has remained in limbo ever since, after city councillors representing the right-wing Venstre and Conservative parties threatened to withdraw their support for the wider regeneration plan if a mosque was approved.
And with the mayor of Aarhus, who was tasked with finding a compromise to break the deadlock, so far proposing an alternative site to the north that they say do not want, campaigners concede their dream of erecting a mosque appears as distant as ever.
“I won’t say that we have been lied to but we have been told things that turned out not to be true, and to the Muslims it is all the same,” said Aydin. “At the end of the day, they are without what they were promised they would get. They have lost a great deal of confidence in society, and ultimately they could turn their backs on it.”
Muslim buy-in needed
Gellerup is the largest and most disadvantaged social housing project in Denmark with a reputation for poverty, unemployment, crime and other problems associated with social exclusion. More than 80 percent of residents living in its apartment blocks are immigrants or their children, and more than 40 percent are under 18. It is officially described as a “ghetto area” in an official list of vulnerable neighbourhoods published by Denmark’s Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Affairs.
The city’s bold masterplan for the area aims to transform it into a vibrant neighbourhood with improved transport connections, new housing and recreational facilities, and a business district. Publicity material makes a selling point of the area’s diversity, with one image showing women in hijabs and even a man in keffiyah and dishdasha strolling by an ornamental lake.
Aydin said a mosque is necessary if the masterplan is to carry the support of local Muslims and achieve its ambition of reversing the area’s fortunes and creating a community more integrated into mainstream Danish life. He said residents could now withdraw their backing for the plan in protest.
“It is important that minorities don’t hide away, that they are a visible and accepted part of society. A mosque could be a beacon in the landscape; socially, culturally and also a beacon of hope. It is about glueing society together. If these fractures remain fractures then you have a society that eventually is at risk of disintegrating.”
But Gert Bjerregard, a local councillor for Venstre, Denmark’s main opposition party, said allowing a mosque to be built in Gellerup would send the “wrong signal”.
“We want a new mix, we want to have new people in this area and a new start for Gellerup, and if you have a mosque I think that is the opposite,” said Bjerregard. “It could become a magnet for people who want to be near a mosque. If we have a mosque there are a lot of Danes who will say, ‘No it is not a place for me to go.’ It will be a strong signal that the area is only for Muslims.”
Bjerregard said his party was not opposed to building a mosque in principle, and said it would support the project if an appropriate site could be found four or five kilometres from the area of the Gellerup masterplan. Venstre politicians have endorsed another project to build a Turkish mosque on the outskirts of Aarhus. When completed the mosque will be the first in Aarhus with a minaret and a cupola.
Members of Aarhus’ Pakistani community also recently purchased and converted a building in a mostly industrial area into a mosque serving their needs. But Aydin said such projects, catering specifically for small migrant communities, only served to separate them from mainstream Danish society. He said one of the goals of the proposed Gellerup mosque was to shape a more coherent, outward-looking and engaged Danish Muslim identity.
“They can still perceive themselves as Turkish Muslims isolated in an island of all this Danishness, instead of starting to see themselves as Danish Muslims amongst all these other Danes. They can perceive themselves as Turks and Muslims but not necessarily Danes.”
‘Let down and obstructed’
Campaigners say they have been repeatedly let down and obstructed by politicians and city officials. The city council agreed in 2004 to work with the Muslim community to identify a site for a mosque and even wrote a commitment – subsequently removed – to build a mosque and Islamic cultural centre into an earlier version of the masterplan.
They say their current preferred site is the 10th location they have considered and the second on which they have spent donors’ money to develop detailed architectural plans. Several more alternative sites have been suggested even in the last month.
“Every time there is a problem we go back to the community and they say, ‘Again, a new placement. What is the problem? If it is because we are Muslims then they have to say so.’ They are trying to make it so difficult for us that it will be impossible to build a mosque,” said Saidana.
Jacob Bundsgaard, mayor of Aarhus, said he believed a compromise could still be found. While his own Social Democrat party and its allies support a mosque and enjoy a majority on the city council, he maintained that cross-party support for the project is essential.
“I think it is a legitimate wish from the Muslim community to have a place to practise their religion. But I can also see that the recognition they want is difficult to get if from the very beginning there is conflict on the council and in society. Then you don’t have a symbol of recognition but a symbol of conflict, and that is not in anybody’s interests.”
For now, Muslims in Aarhus will continue to pray in makeshift mosques in rented halls and converted warehouses. And despite a building boom to prepare the city for its year in the spotlight as European Capital of Culture in 2017, Muslim visitors will likely then still be catered for in the same improvised facilities.
At Friday prayers at Gellerup’s main Peace Mosque, an upstairs room at the back end of the local retail park, latecomers unable to access the hall were siphoned into an adjacent cafe where they were handed kebab wrappers from the food counter in lieu of carpet or prayer mats, their foreheads pressing against the shiny paper squares as they prostrated themselves on the concrete floor.
“A mosque is a symbol that brings people together and we have to fight for it,” said Engin Erkus, a 22-year-old born in Aarhus with ambitions to study medicine whose grandfather arrived from Turkey as a guest worker in the 1960s.
“If we don’t get it we will still come here, but it will be sad because we are living in 2014 and we are talking about democracy and freedom, and yet you can’t build a place to pray.”
This story was amended on 6 October. It originally said incorrectly that an alternative site proposed by the mayor of Aarhus was adjacent to a waste incinerator. A version of this story was originally published on Al Jazeera on 2 October, 2014.