Rotterdam mosque: complete or demolish?

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It has been seven years, and the construction of the Essalam mosque in Rotterdam has still not been completed. Rotterdam council has informed the mosque executive that its building permit will expire if it cannot provide proof of adequate funds to complete the project. So the question is, will the Moroccan community in Rotterdam South ever be able to pray in a new mosque?

The Essalam mosque is a striking building, even when still under construction. Its two minarets tower above a 25-metre dome. The site is located between a park, an apartment building, a school, some roads and a railway line. There is plenty of space for Essalam, which means peace.

Two men standing near the fence are looking at the building. “I have no faith in the project”, says one. “Seven years, and still it is not finished”. Both men have lost all hope that another mosque will ever be built. “No, we will never get a permit for a new building”.

No hope
Work on the project, originally scheduled to be finished in 2005, has been halted for several months; the money ran out and the builders walked off the job. A week ago, Labour Party councillor Hamit Karakus issued an ultimatum. He is demanding a guarantee that the money necessary to complete the project is available.

The money – 2.6 million euros according to the mosque executive – is to come from Dubai. A rich sheikh who runs the Al Maksoum Foundation has already financed several mosques in Europe. He has already funded the Essalam mosque to the tune of several million euros, but a few more are needed.

2,500 Moroccan Muslims
The new mosque is intended for the about 2,500 Moroccan Muslims in Rotterdam South. One of them,  Mohamed Ebraymi is critical of the executive:

"Ninety-nine percent of the people in this community support me”, he says. Mr Ebraymi has even taken the mosque executive to court to demand clarity.

"We are living in a democratic, transparent society, but this executive refuses to provide clarity. The site is ours; we traded it for the site of the old mosque. We raised funds. I want to know what happened to our money. We want guarantees that we will not face a situation in which we can only come in to pray and then be told to clear out. It’s unacceptable that the sheikh should own the building”.

Mr Ebraymi says Moroccans in the Netherlands can raise enough money to complete the construction of the Essalam mosque.

Ronald Sørensen, the leader of powerful local party Leefbaar Rotterdam feels that mosques have no place in the city anyway.

"This triumphalist building suggests: here we are and we are not going to integrate”, he says. "People have the right to pray if they want to. You can do that at home. You can also do that in small, unpretentious buildings which do not attract much attention. Islam evokes many negative emotions. The news is dominated by Muslims causing problems. People in our country are afraid of those problems”.

Mr Sørensen believes councillor Hamit Karakus should make a decision and, after years of delays, the building permit revoked.

The mosque executive is hard at work to restore confidence in the project. However, even though the Al Maksoum Foundation in Dubai has assured them that the money will be made available, there is no sign yet of an official bank guarantee.

The chair of the mosque executive, Abdelrazak Boutaher, arrives at the building site several hours later than planned. A meeting at city hall lasted longer than expected. A few construction workers are working on the mosque.

"We need another 2.6 million to complete construction", he says. "The money is here. It came from Dubai. However, he does not want to discuss the councillor and his demand for a guarantee. Sorry, it’s a very sensitive issue.”

The Essalam mosque must be finished in October, the chairman says. Will that work? “It has to.” And the building’s conspicuousness is not a problem, he says.

“Why are churches so tall? Why are high-rise buildings so tall, or bridges? It’s supposed to be that way. No minaret, no mosque. They go together!”

The councillor refuses to say what exactly will happen when the bank guarantee fails to materialise.

Photo - Philip Smet

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