How and what does an imam preach in a Swiss mosque? How much does he know about secular society? swissinfo.ch sought answers during a visit to a nearby mosque.
The Kevser Mosque in Ostermundigen outside Bern is only about two kilometres from the swissinfo.ch offices. However, neither the German-speaking journalist, who knows the city like the back of his hand, nor his colleague from the Arab service, have ever been there. On their way to Friday prayers, the two reporters have to rely on the locals’ directions since the centre hides behind the brown-grey façade of a former wine shop.
The Turkish-Islamic Association has used this building as a mosque since 2010. Even though most of its 300 members have Turkish roots, the mosque is open to all Muslims. Men from Somalia, Ghana, Tunisia, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have also joined Friday prayers. Among the approximately 200 believers there are a few adolescents and a handful of boys.
From an adjacent room women and girls can watch the prayers through a window, which is transparent from one side to protect them from the looks of the male worshippers.
Imam at Erdogan’s mercy
The journalists are allowed to join, irrespective of their beliefs. imam Abdullah Dikmen preaches in Turkish, switching to Arabic whenever he quotes from the Koran. Just a few weeks ago, his name was in the Swiss media after he shared a Facebook post about the attempted coup in Turkey, calling for opponents of the Turkish regime to be executed.
Following the incident, Dikmen was questioned by the local authorities. “The imam managed to credibly defend his position by saying that he acted in the heat of the moment and that it was triggered by the dramatic events happening in his home country,” says Aliki Panayides, a local councillor. The member of the Ostermundigen government is also the managing director of the conservative right Swiss People’s Party in canton Bern. Since the hype surrounding the Imam’s ‘appeal to revenge’, she has kept in contact with people in the mosque.
There is no talk of politics or social issues in Dikman’s prayers - only religion. Excerpts of the prayers, which come from the Turkish religious authority Diyanet, are projected onto the wall in three languages: German, French and Arabic.
Following media reports about the alleged radicalisation of areas around Swiss mosques, calls for transparency have been getting louder across the country. Some politicians want to make it mandatory for imams to preach in one of Switzerland’s national languages.
After the sermon is over, the journalists’ questions are diverted by the imam to the president of the association, Ahmet Cindir.
Unlike the imam, Cindir speaks fluent German, even dialect. “We are a Turkish-Islamic association. It is in our interest that the Imam preaches in Turkish; it is also laid down in our statutes. We have informed the Swiss authorities that we practice our religion in our language.”
A board member taking part in the conversation adds: “Most of our members speak German pretty well, but when it comes to their religious vocabulary they usually resort to their mother tongues. The religious jargon was not part of the Swiss curriculum.”
Both men are convinced that there are no signs of radicalisation in the vicinity of their mosque. “Our young people are well integrated.” Despite its modest infrastructure and scarce financial resources, they say, the association was trying to facilitate the integration of its young members by offering recreational opportunities. They have even considered giving computer courses as well as helping with job searches.
“We are not ignoring the authorities’ demands for more transparency, however, it is quite difficult to implement,” says Cindir. The association cannot afford to pay the preacher his salary – this is done by Diyanet. When asked whether the Turkish religious authority also took over some of the costs for the building, the president’s answers are contradictory. The land registry lists the Zurich-based Turkish Islamic Foundation for Switzerland (TISS) – a branch of Diyanet - as the sole owner.
Diyanet sends imams to Turkish mosques in Switzerland for the duration of five years, as if they were ambassadors. When they first arrive here, they hardly know anything about the social life of their host country. Something the association’s board is also not happy about.
“By the time an imam has become familiar with the community and its surroundings, he is getting ready to leave again,” Cindir laments. “It would be ideal if an imam knew both societies from his own experience. If Switzerland offered training for imams and recognised Islam as an official religion, we would have more transparency,” the association’s president maintains.
"Christianity is our basis"
Such suggestions often fall on deaf ears, especially with the local authorities. Local councillor Panayides is not in favour of it. In her view, public money should not be spent on foreign religions and cultures. “Christianity is the basis of our culture. The preamble of our constitution still says ‘in the name of God, the Almighty’.”
The town councillor does not believe that “training a few dozen imams at Swiss universities would revolutionise Islam in Switzerland”. She thinks that regularly replacing them was part of the Turkish concept to make integration more difficult.
In answer to the question of how young Muslims could possibly integrate comfortably in such an environment, Panayides says with a personal conviction: …by not visiting certain mosques or by strictly separating prayer from daily life.
“In case we find out that public safety and order can no longer be guaranteed, we will have to close down all mosques in Switzerland. And that would be the end of it!”
On this particular Friday, the mosque presents itself as place of peace and quiet to the journalists. There is neither time nor space for hate tirades or political propaganda. After the noon prayers, the believers return to work as quickly and quietly as they arrived. Even the sign on the door saying “Please be respectful of your neighbours”.
Study on young Swiss Muslims
Young religious Swiss Muslims hardly ever orientate themselves on Imams in mosques, internet preachers or Muslim organisations that are in the public eye. They interpret their religion individually, critically and independently. These are the findings of a study by the University of Lucerne, which questioned 33 Muslim men and 28 Muslim women between 15 and 30 years of age.
Almost all interviewees are practicing Muslims. They have different reasons for following this religion. Islam can be an emotional pillar, a guide for life or a set of rules to follow.
(Source: Swiss News Agency)