Disputed mosque highlights ethnic divide

24th October 2003, Comments 0 comments

Ethnic tension is the main topic of public debate in the Netherlands at present and not surprisingly, the construction of one of Europe's largest mosques in Rotterdam has attracted sharp criticism. But is it justified? Aaron Gray-Block reports.

An artist's impression of how the new mosque will look

It was a dream come true for the Moroccan community in October as construction work started in Rotterdam South on the Essalam mosque, which will be one of the largest Islamic mosques in Europe.

But in contrast, a disgruntled Rotterdam Council has waged a drawn-out battle against the mosque, and the controversy around the building aptly highlights the issues confronting the harbour city in the face of a burgeoning immigrant population.

The city council opposes the increase in the number of large mosques and led by Liveable Rotterdam (LR) Alderman Marco Pastors, it moved to have the architectural plans for Essalam amended.

Pastors claimed the mosque would be too Arabic, was extremely traditional and that its design was even contrary to modern day mosques in Islamic countries.

The mosque's dome will be 25m high and sharp criticism was directed at its 50m minarets, which will be higher than the light towers of nearby Feyenoord football stadium De Kuip. LR has led calls for the building take on a more "modest" appearance.

Liveable Rotterdam is the largest party on the council in Rotterdam, having risen to power in the local elections on 6 March 2002 on a wave of popularity for its anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic leader, Pim Fortuyn.

The maverick politician was later shot and killed in Hilversum on 6 May 2002, but his populist national party LPF claimed 26 seats at the general election nine days later to enter into a short-lived coalition government with the Christian Democrat CDA and Liberal VVD.

But LR has had its own share of internal wrangling but remains in power in Rotterdam. It has come out strongly against the continuing influx of immigrants into Rotterdam. The party's stance cannot be separated from the council's aim to create a better spread of underprivileged immigrants across the city to battle the creation of "problem" neighbourhoods.

Immigrant restriction

Alderman Pastors has said he wants to create a symbolic fence around the city by only allowing people without a criminal record, a sufficient income and language level to move to the city, newspaper Rotterdams Dagblad said.

Furthermore, an Intomart survey in August found that 62 percent of Rotterdam residents supported restricting the number of immigrants allowed to live in the city, while 25 percent were opposed.

The survey came after research bureau COS predicted the proportion of immigrants would grow to 58 percent of Rotterdam's total population by 2017, compared with 46 percent last year.

Figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) also indicate that the Islamic population doubled in the past decade to 902,000 or 5.7 percent of the total population in the Netherlands.

Interestingly, the Social and Cultural Planning bureau (SCP) released a report on 24 October showing that 48 percent of immigrants believe there are too many immigrants in the country, while a total of 65 percent of Dutch natives agree.

But the Cabinet said earlier this month that limiting the number of immigrants who could settle in one area was discrimination and breached the Constitution and various other international treaties. Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk and her colleagues also said that race, ethnicity or nationality could not be used as distinguishing criteria.

This meant that the allotment of housing could not be based on those criteria. Income level and the language of certain population groups could be used, but they must be adequately justified and should be directly related to the objective.

In response, Rotterdam Council will investigate solutions to the high concentration of immigrants in parts of the city, but refuses to blame population groups for problem neighbourhoods.

Ethnic tensions

But ethnic tensions remain and they are not only finding root in Rotterdam.

Tilburg has launched a crackdown against criminal Antillean youth, the brutal murder of an Amsterdam drug addict this month sparked co

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