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Mosque Controversies in Europe (and Lessons Learned From the American Experience)

According to a 2012 research study conducted by Pew, Muslims are the second largest religious group in Europe, constituting approximately 5.9 percent of the population. Their growing presence, attributed to an influx of migration from Muslim-majority societies, has been met by increased government restrictions on and related social hostilities related to religion or belief. This post examines the conflict surrounding mosque construction projects.

By way of background, many Muslims view mosques as a divine house of worship reserved for spiritual reflection and prayer akin to a Christian church, Jewish synagogue, Buddhist temple or Hindu mandir.

In some communities, a mosque is a place of social, cultural and economic significance, too. Members may go to there to celebrate weddings or births, contribute to a charitable event, participate in interfaith dialogues and sell ethnic garb or goods.

For some Europeans, however, purpose-built mosques are a symbolic representation of Muslims, a visible imprint of the group's cultural presence. Similar to controversies arising in the American context, the debate surrounding European mosque construction plans may reflect popular anxieties about fundamentalism, expressions of gender inequality, links with extremism, etc.

Popular and political opposition may also be undergirded by a fear of Islamic power and dominion. This is because a purpose-built mosque visibly alters landscape and territory. In contrast, makeshift or ad hoc mosques are unrecognizable as such and are plentiful throughout Europe.

In Greece, a country that was subject to Turkish Ottoman rule for nearly four centuries, Muslims have been struggling since 1971 to build an official mosque in Athens, reportedly the only capital city in the European Union without one.

Their efforts stem from a desire to accommodate the faith practices of a growing community. Approximately 500,000 to 700,000 Muslims live in the area, and currently pray in ad hoc (unregistered) mosques operating in old garages, warehouses or cultural halls. Again, these mosques are invisible -- just a sign or plaque identifies them as such -- and little to no debate surrounds them.

Since 2011, plans to build an official mosque in Athens have failed on five occasions due to popular and political opposition. Organized protests to the Athens mosque has been fomented by supporters of the far-right National Front movement and by members of Golden Dawn, a political party openly espousing anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism.

Amid Greek's financial turmoil in recent years, these parties have grown in strength and political power with adverse consequences for the country's ethnic and religious minorities, including Muslims who have historically been viewed as Turkish, foreigners or harboring anti-Greek sentiments.

In Northern Ireland, Muslims have been working for over a decade to establish a purpose-built mosque in Belfast to accommodate the community of approximately 5,000. Their initial plans failed about 10 years ago when popular opposition voiced concerns about how a purpose-built mosque would attract Islamic militants and introduce noise pollution to the area. Members continue to pray in a Victorian house that accommodates just 200 worshippers.

As reported by Amnesty International, the efforts of Muslims to introduce a purpose-built mosque to Catalonia, Spain have similarly failed. In fact, between 1990 and 2008, such efforts have given rise to 40 disputes between Muslim organizations, municipal officials and residents.

With more than 350,000 Muslims residing in the region, some political parties have described the group's desire for a purpose-built mosque as "incompatible with Catalan traditions and culture." As a result, Muslims are frequently forced to pray outdoors due to the lack of adequate space at ad hoc prayer rooms.

In other instances, selective enforcement of laws and regulations are used to shut down mosques. In Italy, for instance, officials are described as selectively enforcing security or fire safety standards against mosques but not other buildings that are in violation of the same regulations. To be sure, all buildings should comply with applicable rules and regulations that should be applied fairly across the board.

In the United States, American Muslims have confronted popular and official opposition to mosque construction and expansion projects, too. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), such opposition represents the Civil Rights Division's greatest "growth industry" in the context of anti-Muslim activity.

In response, American Muslims have often filed related lawsuits to enforce their right to establish a house of worship under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal U.S. statute that protects individuals, houses of worship and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning law.

From Murfreesboro, Tennessee to Bridgewater, New Jersey, American Muslims have prevailed in those cases.

And, they have frequently done so with the assistance of or support from the U.S. federal government. In Murfreesboro, the DOJ famously intervened by filing legal papers supporting the Muslim community's right to build their house of worship. In the past two years, the DOJ has initiated 21 cases involving discrimination and arbitrary action by local zoning boards against mosques.

This represents the first lesson learned from the American experience: officials must strengthen the rule of law by implementing and enforcing appropriate legislation.

Under international law, the right to establish places of worship is a protected aspect of one's right to freedom of religion or belief set forth within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and European Convention on Human Rights.

This is because constructing a purpose-built mosque represents a manifestation of religious freedom.

European government officials should protect the rights of all citizens, including religious minorities, to establish places of worship by further strengthening the rule of law in their respective states. They can do so by ensuring that private and official actors adhere to the law. Further, political leaders and officials should visit existing mosques to help dispel stereotypes and stigma surrounding the institutions; U.S. embassy officials should do the same.

In so doing, their efforts not only advances the cause of human rights and religious freedom but also effectively undermines the narrative that the so-called 'War on Terrorism' is in reality a 'War on Muslims.'

Similar to their American counterparts, Muslims in Europe have a critical role to play in upholding the rule of law, too. And, that brings us to the second lesson learned from the American experience:

File a lawsuit.

And, once you have prevailed, be sure to hold an open house at the new purpose-built mosque to facilitate dialogue and enhance mutual understanding necessary to fostering peace and building community in your area.

Engy Abdelkader is a Legal Fellow with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.

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