Rüdiger Rossig | Journalist | Novinar

A towering dispute

A southwest German town is a microcosm of the integration debate | By Ruediger Rossig

The towers of two castles hover over the half-timbered houses of the picturesque town of Weinheim in northwest Baden-Württemberg. And, more recently, so too does a narrow, white, round tower with a pointed roof.

When the Türkiyem Mevlana Mosque erected its 80-foot-high minaret last year, many locals in the 43,000-population town also raised a warning forefinger. The dome-roofed Muslim house of worship at the edge of the northern part of Weinheim was completed eight years ago.

The neighborhood was built to house local factory workers in the late 19th and early 20th century. During that period, many Catholics left the valleys of the nearby Odenwald region for Protestant Weinheim. After 1945, displaced Germans from the eastern territories as well as refugees from communist East Germany also moved here.

Then the West German economic miracle brought the first “guest workers” from Italy, Spain, Greece, Yugoslavia – and Turkey. Many brought their families but the Turks also brought a new religion.

In 1976 the Turkish-Islamic Association in Weinheim was founded. “We prayed in different rooms, most recently in a former factory,” said its chairman Ishak Ünal. “But of course we always wanted a proper mosque.”

Ünal, born in 1965, has lived in Weinheim for 31 years. He has watched the number of Muslims steadily grow. About 4,500 Weinheimers have Turkish passports. But nobody knows how many residents of Turkish origin don’t show up in the statistics because they – like Ünal ten years ago – have become naturalized Germans.

In 1996, the Turkish-Islamic community bought a property in the northern part of town. In 2002, the mosque was inaugurated – without a minaret. “In the beginning there was strong disapproval in the neighborhood and there were angry letters to the editor in the local press,” recalls Ishak Ünal, who himself lives in the north of Weinheim. “So at first we only applied for the main building.”

Four years later, the Weinheim Muslims thought that the time was ripe to put in a planning request for the mosque’s minaret. Ünal sounded out the parties in the local council. The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was clear: The traditionally Christian German population expected the tower next to the mosque under no circumstances to be used for a public call to prayer.

The Islamic call to prayer over Weinheim? According to the German Islam Conference there are more than 2,000 Muslim houses of worship in Germany – but the call for prayer echoes from only one minaret in a north German industrial area. Nevertheless, Holger Haring, conservative party leader in the local council, remained skeptical.

“During construction of the mosque there were already rumors of trickery,” recalled the 60-year-old owner of a painting and decorating company. “It turned out that the concrete foundation for a minaret had already been poured, although it had not been applied for. That caused resentment.”

To avoid further conflict, the CDU got the mosque association to promise to build a “silent” minaret. But controversy still reigns over exactly what that was supposed to mean. Haring says it meant that the tower next to the mosque should not be accessible. But Ishak Ünal says he merely gave an assurance that the call of the muezzin would never sound from the Weinheim minaret.

In fact, the written undertaking submitted by the mosque association explicitly states that the tower cannot have stairs or speakers. The Weinheim conservatives on the local council were satisfied and approved construction of the minaret.

But then local residents reported that there were steps in the narrow, round white tower on the outskirts of the town. Children playing on the site even discovered an entrance. Haring took the issue back to the local council.

In a memorable meeting on May 12, 2010, Thorsten Fetzner, the council’s planning officer, had to concede that he knew nothing about an entrance or a staircase. Letters to the local paper accused the Turkish community of “a betrayal of trust” and “salami tactics” – with the ulterior motive of ensuring that the “muezzin’s call would ring out over Weinheim.” There were demands for the minaret to be demolished.

“The staircase was definitely not drawn into the 2006 building plans,” said Fetzner. “It later turned out that there were two versions: the planning authority had the one without stairs and the architect got the one with stairs.” It soon became clear that the steps were an integral part of the precast concrete components for the minaret and essential to its structural integrity.

Fetzner, who has a degree in construction engineering, stresses that up until then he had seen the minaret controversy as a building regulation matter. “I never saw and don’t see an integration problem in Weinheim,” he says. But what about the continuing debate about the integration of Islam in Germany?

“Sure, there are rudiments of parallel societies among some of the Turks – and among some Germans,” said the planning officer, who is a member of the Green party. “But my daughter plays with Turkish children every day and there are also no problems at our school.”

Fetzner always knew that the staircase in the tower had nothing to do with the call to prayer. Even in Turkey, the muezzins haven’t climbed to the top of their minarets in decades; they use microphones and loudspeakers.

A Minaret Commission was formed in June 2010 to find a solution. Helmut Schmitt, the veteran Commissioner for Foreigners’ Affairs in nearby Mannheim was tasked with putting together and chairing the committee.

First, the 65-year-old held a meeting with the CDU members. “I was quite frank with them and told them we needed to talk about xenophobia,” said Schmitt. “And also about racism. Nobody likes mentioning this word in Germany. But sometimes it’s exactly what is necessary.”

Some CDU supporters represented extreme positions, Schmitt said. “They thought that the minaret should be sealed, filled with concrete or the stairs taken out.” He made it clear that such demands were “highly inflammatory.” At the same time it was clear that the commission would have to find a solution that the CDU could live with and sell to its supporters. A difficult task.

In early August, the Minaret Commission presented its proposal: The Mosque Association was asked to resubmit its planning application, including the stairs and the door and to provide the local fire department with a key to the minaret.

All parties agreed to the compromise, including Haring. But he retains a feeling that the Weinheim Turks somehow do not fit in. “They are different from the Italians, Spanish, Greeks or ex-Yugoslavs,” said the CDU-politician. “These groups have long since become part of the local population, in a way that we in the CDU imagine integration: learning German, recognizing the primacy of German culture and that we are a Christian country.”

Despite his continuing reservations Haring is planning to hire his first ever Turkish apprentice. “He’s got precisely the virtues that I sometimes miss among the German youth,” said the decorator. “Diligence, punctuality and courtesy.”

A towering disputeThe Atlantic Times