Islamic Culture in Europe:
When I drive from Bonn to Cologne here in Germany, I often travel on the west side of the Rhine River on the autobahn that links the two cities. About halfway between them, I always notice a minaret that is clearly visible from the road.
It is hard to miss, since it belongs to an Islamic mosque located just off the autobahn in a section of town that appears to be zoned for light commercial usage. The mosque's minarets stand in stark contrast to the other small commercial businesses in the vicinity and a nearby discotheque.
The location of this one mosque halfway between Bonn and Cologne reflects the situation of Islam in many parts of Western Europe. Islam, as a "minority" religion, is present but not prominent. And that situation has been largely acceptable to the native Western Europeans.
Cologne's controversial central mosque
However, things are changing. It comes as no surprise that the growing Muslim population in Germany (approximately 4 million Muslims, about 5 percent of Germany's population) desires more appropriate representation for its religion. The number of mosques has increased in recent years, and construction of a central mosque in Cologne for the Muslim community conveys the impression that Muslims want their religion visible on main street, not just on side streets.
The new central mosque in Cologne has Germans asking the question: "How big should Muslim mosques be?" Among those who have asked the question is Edmund Stoiber, who as governor of Bavaria wanted to ensure that Christian cathedrals would be higher – and therefore more visible – than mosques. His argument is that Christian Germans still make up a majority of the population, and the country's main culture is influenced most by Christianity.
The central mosque in Cologne was the subject of intense debate for several years. The Cologne city board of directors approved construction plans for the mosque in August 2008. Cologne's mayor, Fritz Schramma, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), supports the project but many of his own party members have strong reservations. They see the proposed mosque as a show of force from the Muslim side.
When completed, the Cologne mosque will have a prayer room large enough to accommodate 1,200 worshippers. The slim minarets will be 55 meters (180 feet) high with the dome over the prayer room at a height of 35 meters (115 feet). The height of the minarets was a subject of considerable discussion, since some wondered whether they would "compete" with Cologne's famous Cathedral some 4.5 kilometers distant. However, the cathedral is 157 meters (515 feet) high and will continue to dominate the Cologne skyline.
Public reaction to the planned mosque has been mixed. The dome will look like a globe, using transparent glass to make it possible to see into the mosque. The prestigious German weekly "Die Zeit" interpreted this as a symbol of Islam's openness toward the world.
Some consider the Cologne mosque to be more than a desire to move to main street. They view the building's size as evidence that Muslims really don't want to be integrated into German society. According to Necla Kelek, the mosque will sow "the seeds for a parallel society. We have already seen that particularly large mosques develop into their own cities, own Medinas."
Well-known atheist Ralph Giordano agrees. In comments made to German TV station WDR, Giordano said: "The [approval of the] building permit is an anti-integration decision. Just the mosque's size shows that Muslims are demanding power."
Although the Catholic and Lutheran churches officially support the building of mosques in Germany, the Cologne mosque has raised questions about reciprocal tolerance. Cologne's cardinal Joachim Meisner wants Muslims in Germany to start fighting for Christian rights in Muslim countries in return for the mosques they are allowed to build in Germany.
Augsburg's bishop Walter Mixa chided local authorities for issuing building permits for mosques as large as the one in Cologne. "In countries which are mainly pervaded by Muslim culture, Christians really have no rights. Therefore we should not allow mosques with pompous minarets in Germany. In a Christian society it is sufficient if the Muslims have a place where they can hold prayers," bishop Mixa said.
A minaret-free Switzerland
Germany isn't the only country in Europe where Islamic mosques are a source of intense discussion. In a national referendum at the end of November, Swiss voters approved an addition to their constitution that will prohibit the construction of mosques with minarets in Switzerland.
After a two-year campaign to gather the required 100,000 signatures, the referendum was placed on the ballot by the conservative Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP). Analysts were surprised not only by the clear result, with 57 percent in favor of the measure, but also by voter turnout, which was 10 percent higher than average for national referendums in Switzerland.
Swiss analysts were surprised by the outcome of the referendum. Opinion polls prior to the ballot had indicated that the initiative would be defeated easily. All established political parties had encouraged voters to reject the proposal.
The Swiss government did the same, asking Swiss citizens to consider the possible negative effect that approving the petition would have on Switzerland's relations with Muslim countries. Swiss Minister of Justice Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who resigned from the SVP in the summer of 2008, appealed to voters to remember human rights and religious freedom.
Representatives of several parties described the outcome of the referendum as a "political expression" of disapproval toward an Islam viewed by many Swiss as being militant. That was exactly the point made by the SVP, as represented by Ulrich Schlüer, one of the organizers of the signature drive. He called minarets an Islamic "political symbol of a claim to power," a similar description as the one applied to the new Cologne mosque in Germany.
The referendum reflects deep-rooted fear over the potential future influence of Islam in a country that currently has only four mosques with minarets, although about 5 percent of the Swiss population is Islamic in its religious orientation.
As was to be expected, the reaction of the Islamic community in Germany to the Swiss referendum was negative. The focal point of criticism was the perception that limitations are being placed on religious freedom.
However, the central committee for former Muslims in Germany took a different view. "The 'no' to minarets is really a signal against Islamism, Islamic sharia law and the mandatory head covering for women. The minaret is just a symbol for justified apprehension concerning political Islam," according to central committee chairman Mina Ahadi. He praised Swiss citizens intervening and making their opposition known decisively.
A burka-free France?
Just two weeks after the referendum in Switzerland, delegates of France's governing Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) party voiced support for banning the traditional full-body burka worn in public by women from some Muslim areas of the world. This burka leaves only a small slit in front of the eyes for vision but otherwise totally covers the body.
"The reality is that no one in France wants this custom to spread in our country," UMP party leader Jean-François Copé told the daily "Le Figaro." According to Copé, not only French citizens but representatives of the Islamic community view the burka as incompatible with the values of the French republic.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy did not comment on Copé's remarks, but it was Sarkozy himself who called for a ban on the burka last June in an address to the French parliament – the first time in 150 years that a French president addressed the country's legislature.
"It [the burka] will not be welcome on French soil," Sarkozy told the parliamentarians. "We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic's idea of women's dignity."
Following Sarkozy's address in June, a multiparty parliamentary commission was established to make a recommendation on the issue. In January the commission "recommended adopting a ban on wearing the full veil in 'public places' including hospitals, schools and on mass transit. Under the proposal, women appearing in government offices wearing a burka could be denied visa and immigration services," Deutsche Welle reported January 26.
Should Europe's religious heritage be defended?
Public discussion, debate and referendums on the size of Muslim mosques, minarets and burkas were not an issue years ago when guest workers were needed for a booming postwar economy and the number of Muslims in Western Europe was relatively small. Today, however, population growth in Western Europe's Muslim community is much higher than the traditional ethnic population. If negotiations on membership are completed successfully, Turkey's potential entry into the European Union would see the Muslim portion of total EU population jump from about 5 percent today to over 20 percent.
Whether justified or not, the minaret referendum in Switzerland reflects a growing perception in much of Western Europe that Islamic influence will compete with Europe's traditional religious heritage, which is Christian.
Without ever referring to Islam, it comes as no surprise that Pope Benedict XVI has reminded Europeans repeatedly that they should not forget their religious heritage.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is taking the pope's admonitions seriously following a verdict rendered at the beginning of November 2009 in Strasbourg by a European Court of Human Rights. The court banned the display of crucifixes in Italian classrooms, justifying its decision on the potential that crucifixes on walls in Italian schools might cause distress for children who were not Christian.
The court ruling overturned two Italian laws, dating back to the 1920s when Fascists were in power in Italy, that required schools to display crucifixes in classrooms.
Prime Minister Berlusconi described the Strasbourg ruling as a silly attempt to deny Europe's Christian roots, adding that "this is not acceptable for us Italians." The conservative politician enjoys considerable support from the country's Roman Catholic majority.
Referring to the many churches in his country, Berlusconi declared that "you only have to walk 200 meters forwards, backwards, to the right or to the left and you find a symbol of Christianity. This is one of those decisions that often make us doubt Europe's good sense." He declared that his government plans to appeal the ruling.
In a rare moment of unity among Italian politicians, the court ruling was criticized in Italy across ideological boundaries. Only some groups on the far left and atheists voiced support for the Strasbourg decision. The Vatican's response was one of "shock and sadness," causing Vatican official Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone to remark that "Europe in the third millennium is leaving us only Halloween pumpkins while depriving us of our most beloved symbols."
The court decision came only two weeks after Pope Benedict's latest admonition for Europeans not to forget their continent's Christian roots.
Like her neighbors to the north and west, Italy is involved in a debate on how to deal with a growing population of non-Christian immigrants, mostly Muslims. The Strasbourg court ruling could become another battle cry for the government's policy drive to crack down on new arrivals.
Mara Bizzotto, a European parliamentarian for Berlusconi's anti-immigrant coalition partner, the Northern League, asked why the European court had taken action against a Christian symbol but did not comment on Muslim reglious symbols such as "veils, burkas and niqabs [facial veils]."
The lawsuit against the crucifixes was brought by an Italian citizen who complained that her children had to attend a public school in northern Italy that had crucifixes in every room, thereby denying her the right to give them a secular education.
In 2003 a Muslim parent, Adel Smith, the head of the small Union of Italian Muslims, succeeded in getting a court order to have crosses removed from the school his children attended. But the order was later reversed after a nationwide protest.
Traditional religion to ride high again in Europe
Bible prophecy indicates that the growing concern over Islamic reach in Europe will be superseded in the future by a resurgence of traditional religious influence, greatly magnified in the period preceding the return of Jesus Christ. The apostle John predicted this coming influence in symbolic language in the book of Revelation. He describes the rise of two beasts, one of which represents a counterfeit religious system.
The first beast will be a geopolitical power as an end-time revival of the Roman Empire, described in Revelation 13, verse 1 as "a beast rising out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name" (verse 1). This first "beast" receives "his power, his throne, and great authority" from the dragon, who is Satan the devil. From the heritage of earlier empires an end-time revival of the Roman Empire will arise, a powerful alliance of 10 "kings" or rulers that will exist shortly before Christ returns.
In the same chapter John describes another beast: "Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon. He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed" (Revelation 13:11-12, NIV).
Who is this second beast? He is a tool of Satan who uses his position and authority to influence humankind to worship the first beast, which is described not only in Revelation 13, but also elsewhere in Revelation and Daniel. This second beast seems to represent Christ – a lamb – but in reality his words reflect Satanic thought – the dragon.
How will he persuade the masses to accept such arrogance? He will be a skillful deceiver directly manipulated and empowered by Satan. "He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men. And he deceives those who dwell on the earth by those signs which he was granted to do in the sight of the beast, telling those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast who was wounded by the sword and lived. He was granted power to give breath to the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak and cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed" (verses 13-15).
John later describes the powerful religious leader as "the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his [the Beast's] behalf" (Revelation 19:20, NIV). The False Prophet is evidently the satanically led leader of a false religious system represented by the immoral woman riding the Beast in Revelation 17. It will be the same religious system that dominated Europe in earlier centuries, but whose influence will have diminished more recently, prior to a final revival of the Roman Empire in Europe. The immoral woman rides the Beast, reflecting her influence over the direction that final revival will take.
The apostle Paul also foretold the coming of a powerful deceiver: "And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved" (2 Thessalonians 2:8-10). Tragically, most people will be hoodwinked into believing him.
These future events will surprise a world unaware of what the Bible has to say about the time leading up to the prophesied return of Jesus Christ. However, you don’t have to remain uninformed. I recommend the free booklets You Can Understand Bible Prophecy and The Book of Revelation Unveiled, both available free of charge upon request.
• Paul Kieffer, February 23, 2010