Mosques and Minarets

Swiss Vote Reveals European Concerns

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, DEC. 6, 2009 ( Switzerland’s referendum on banning the construction of minarets for mosques raised once more the issue of the growing Islamic presence in Western Europe. According to final results, 57.5% of voters and a majority of cantons voted in favor of the ban.

There are an estimated 200 mosques and prayer rooms in Switzerland, mainly in disused factories and warehouses, according to a report by the news agency Swissinfo on Nov. 29. Only four of these have a minaret.

As ZENIT reported on Dec. 1 the Swiss bishops criticized the minaret ban. In a communiqué published Sunday, the Swiss bishops’ conference stated that the move, «represents an obstacle and a great challenge on the path of integration in dialogue and mutual respect.»

Fortunately just before the Swiss referendum Stefano Allievi, an Italian sociologist at the University of Padua, published a report on mosques, titled: “Conflicts Over Mosques in Europe: Policy Issues and Trends.”

Published under the auspices of the Network of European Foundations, the report started by noting the various controversies in Europe raised by the presence of Islam.

— Conflicts about principles and ideas: from the Rushdie affair in Britain to the cartoons affair in Denmark.

— Conflicts brought about by dramatic events happening in Europe concerning Islam and caused by Islamic terrorism and its consequences in European countries.

— Controversies frequently raised and discussed in public debate relating to gender issues, for example on the role of women in Islam.


Turning to the issue of mosques, Allievi explained that this matter is not limited to the establishment of places of worship, but also involves the question of their visibility in European cities, which has an evident symbolic value.

Then, there is the matter of the broadcasting of the adhan, the call to prayer, from mosques to the areas surrounding them, as well as the issue of Muslim cemeteries and the right to obtain religiously exclusive areas within existing cemeteries. 

It’s a mistake, the report commented, to interpret these conflicts as if it were just something stemming from action by “political fearmongers.” At stake, Allievi continued, are questions of deep social and cultural import.

Historically, the matter of places for Islamic worship was linked to the presence of Islamic workers who arrived in Europe starting several decades ago. Initially, Allievi explained, prayer halls appeared in the foyers of buildings where the workers lived or were employed.

By the end of the 1970s and especially the 1980s, there was a gradual spread of prayer halls, which was partly the result of a growing awareness that this was a permanent migration, the report commented.

With time the number of prayer halls multiplied and there were increasing concentrations of Muslims in the local communities. As a consequence in large cities, especially the capital cities, large purpose-built Islamic centers were constructed. This was normally done with finance from external resources, the report noted, which was often from the Muslim World League, an organization under the control of Saudi Arabia.

Outside of the capital cities the mosques that were eventually built tended to be located in the industrial suburbs, where it was easier to find buildings of sufficient size to adapt to these purposes, or in ethnic neighborhoods, on the outskirts of a big city.


A section of Allievi’s report examined the matter of how many mosques are present in Europe. He also compared the total number of Muslim inhabitants to the number of mosques.

In the area of Western Europe he calculated that there are 18.06 million Muslims and 10,869 mosques, roughly equivalent to one mosque for every 1,660 Muslims. This is, he noted, a ration roughly comparable to the situation in many Muslim countries or, in Europe, to places of worship of the dominant Christian religion in the respective countries. 

He then excluded the data on Bosnia, where Islam is a historically established presence and also Thrace, where there is also a historical Muslim minority. The result was a total of 8,701 mosques serving a world of Islamic immigration made up of approximately 16.44 million people, corresponding to one prayer room for every 1,890 Muslims living in Europe.

“The figure may seem surprising, given the widespread assumption that Muslim places of worship are few in number,” Allievi commented.

While this popular impression may still be true for some countries exposed to more recent immigration phenomena, it is not true in terms of the European average, he added.

Then, the report continued, if we compare these figures to the people of Muslim origin who actually practice their religion, which is about one-third according to a recent study he cited, the number of Muslims per mosque is of course significantly lower. “Therefore, there is no problem of a lack of places of worship,” he concluded.

The report then turned to look at the situation in those countries where the Islamic presence is particularly notable. In France, Muslims account for about 5.5 million people, or 8% of the population. There are approximately 2,100 Islamic places of worship in the country. This is proportionally lower than in other countries, but the report explained this figure is similar to that of other religions and is testimony to  the impact of the secular and republican ideologyin the life of the country.


Germany comes second behind France in the ranking of European countries for the number of Muslims — 3.2 to 3.4 million — even though the proportion in relation to the overall population is considerably lower, at about 3%. 

The absolute number of mosques, however, is the highest in Europe (at least 2,600), the report affirmed. In fact, the ratio between the number of mosques and the number of Muslims is the highest in Europe, excluding Bosnia, and their presence is significant and highly visible, according to Allievi. 

In the United Kingdom the proportion of mosques is significant when we take into account that the estimated 2.4 million Muslims have over 1,000 mosques, the report commented.

As well, many mosques are purpose-built, especially in the large ethnic communities around the country. Thus, there are 116 mosques in Birmingham, of which 10 are purpose-built, for a total of 140,000 Muslims. There are 44 in Bradford, of which six are purpose-built, for the city’s 75,000 Muslims. And there are 31 in Manchester, of which five are purpose-built, for 125,000 Muslims.

Overall, the proportion of mosques is twice the European average, with almost one mosque for every 1,000 Muslims. It’s also possible to frequently find Islamic prayer rooms and other forms of religious facility in a wide range of places: airports, shopping centers, and meeting places of various kinds, including football stadiums.

Further on in the report it observed that the minaret “appears to have become a symbol par excellence of the conflict surrounding Islam, or rather of its visibility in the public eye.”

Allievi commented that historically towers have always been a sign of power and domination. For example, in medieval Italian cities the victory of a family or a city over another resulted in the destruction of the towers of the defeated party.

He concluded by saying that the mosques in themselves are not the problem, but rather there are the problems related to an increasing cultural and religious plurality that is now producing not only a quantitative but also a qualitative change in European states. How Europe deals with this situation will continue to be a topic of much interest in coming years.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation