Female mosque leader offers new European brand of Islam, targeting intolerance

By Bruce Mutsvairo, AP
Monday, April 12, 2010

Woman mosque leader seeks new Muslim in Europe

AMSTERDAM — Yassmine el Ksaihi doesn’t see herself as a feminist rebel. She covers her head and wears modest clothing. She learned to read the Quran at age 5 and promotes traditional Muslim values.

Yet there is something pioneering about her nonetheless: At age 24 she is the administrator of a large mosque, an unusual position of authority for a young woman in the world of Islam, even in Europe.

In a first for the Netherlands, men and women pray together in the Polder Mosque — albeit segregated, with the women praying in the back of the red-carpeted prayer hall. Sermons are in Dutch rather than Arabic. Non-Muslims are welcome.

Across Europe, Muslims are seeking a formula that lets them fit into their country while maintaining loyalty to their faith, and el Ksaihi’s mosque, which melds some Western secular values with deep attachment to Islam, is one solution toward resolving such tensions.

Experts say it’s part of a European trend: many young Muslims on the continent are staying away from traditional mosques and meeting in more casual settings for prayer and study groups.

Fitting into European society while remaining rooted in Islam is no easy task among native populations that often resent the growing number of Muslims, and — many Muslims feel — discriminate against them in jobs and education.

Across Europe, conservative politicians are pushing to limit further immigration or to compel Muslims to abandon foreign ways.

In the Netherlands, where Muslims comprise 6 percent of the country’s 16.5 million people, an anti-Islam party has become the country’s fastest growing political movement. Its leader, Geert Wilders, complains that Muslims reject European liberalism, that they deny women equal rights and that they are intolerant of alternative lifestyles like homosexuality.

Wilders’ popularity is partly a reaction to a spate of Islamic radical violence that sent shudders through the nation a few years ago. In 2004, a young Muslim from the Slotervaart neighborhood murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had produced a short film portraying alleged oppression of Muslim women. Police have broken up other alleged radical networks, and the Dutch secret service has warned that Holland remains a potential target for homegrown terrorism.

The Polder Mosque tries to find middle ground between Islamic radicalism and rightwing xenophobia. And it may be at the forefront of the effort to find, if not a European style of Islam, at least grounds for coexistence with European norms.

El Ksaihi seeks to make Islam more accessible to young Muslims born in a secular nation and make Muslims more acceptable to their neighbors. She wants congregants to embrace the religion and culture while extracting it from the homeland of their immigrant parents.

“We choose Dutch as the main language because we focus on the young people. Most of them can only speak Dutch,” she said. “If non-Muslims enter the mosque, they will hear what we are discussing. There is nothing scary about what we do.”

As administrator, El Ksaihi is in charge of finances and hires the imams who lead the prayers and deliver sermons. She says she finds imams that reflect the diversity of the Amsterdam Muslim community, including preachers from Malaysia and Indonesia as well as from Morocco and Turkey where most Dutch Muslims come from.

The mosque is a cultural center as much as a house of worship. “This is a traditional model of Islam. It’s not new,” she said. “We are going back to the roots. There is only one Islam.”

Mona Siddiqui, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Glasgow, says the Amsterdam mosque is part of wider movement that is just beginning to be felt in Europe.

“The mosque does stand for something — namely that Muslims in Europe are carving out new ways of addressing their own communities away from traditional and sometimes oppressive structures,” she said in an e-mail.

“That is a good thing in my opinion, but I am not sure that it is a defining moment. There are a huge variety of different Muslim communities in Europe and women have been making and continue to make their voices heard in all kinds of ways, even if this journey is a struggle sometimes,” she wrote.

Europe has an estimated 20 million Muslims, making Islam the continent’s second largest religion.

“Many young people have moved away from traditional mosque settings and organized their own ways of conducting worship,” said Siddiqui. That “bears witness to the changing pattern of worship in Europe.”

Little evidence of change can be seen in France, however, home of western Europe’s largest Muslim population. For years, authorities have been prodding Muslim leaders to inculcate what they call an “Islam of France” that would fit seamlessly into French society — and embrace moderate interpretations of the religion.

They have found it is easier said than done.

The estimated 5 million Muslims in France reflect a multitude of tendencies within Islam, from moderates to Salafists seeking an uncompromising return to Islam’s origins. In addition, imams often do not speak French and mosques are funded with money from foreign benefactors — often seen as a source for terror cell funding.

Financing is another departure from the European norm for Amsterdam’s Polder Mosque, which refuses to accept foreign money. “That is one of our main pillars,” El Ksaihi said. “It’s a Dutch initiative so we have to keep it 100 percent Dutch.”

Slotervaart, the neighborhood where the mosque is located, was the first district to benefit from the government’s euro28 million ($38 million) grant in 2007 to combat radicalism through education and dialogue.

El Ksaihi’s mosque is a one-story former community center set amid tall apartment buildings in an overwhelmingly Muslim neighborhood, but it has no minarets. Young men, some with long beards and robes and some in Western garb, mingle together at the mosque entrance ahead of the Friday prayers.

It takes its name from a uniquely Dutch feature: a polder is an area of land that has been reclaimed from the marsh or sea and often turned into rich farmland. Historically, it is a symbol of cooperative effort.

Apart from fighting entrenched discrimination against women, which she considers an affront to Islam, El Ksaihi says her mosque provides a platform for interfaith dialogue.

A non-Muslim Dutch woman, Marloes Kuijer, is a member of the board of directors.

“I am not religious,” said Kuijer. “I feel at home here because it’s a meeting place for everyone, young or old, Muslim or non-Muslims.”

It also invites Muslims of all views, even sympathizers with the “jihadists,” or radicals. “We don’t discriminate,” said El Ksaihi. “You have to let everyone in, regardless of their views. You can only help someone if you understand their views.”

That all-embracing policy may have a positive impact, says Jean Tillie, a University of Amsterdam political scientist, who conducted a six-year research project on the radicalization of Muslim youths in Amsterdam. “The chance that they will become more moderate is bigger than the chance that if you exclude them they will become extremists,” he said.

Momamed Choupi, an imam who preaches at the Polder Mosque, says the people who brought Islam with them to Holland from Turkey and Morocco must adapt to the local context and find “a Dutch way of experiencing Islam.”

Associated Press writer Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.

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