As a mosque rises, a dispute flares in Berlin

Berlin, Germany - A squabble over construction of the first mosque in formerly communist East Berlin is becoming the latest flash point between Muslims intent on asserting a strong identity in Europe and Europeans increasingly fearful that their secular societies are threatened by Islamic fundamentalism.

Last week, in a foundation laying ceremony that faced protests, members of the small, conservative Ahmadiyya Muslim group watched with pride as a patch of concrete was poured on the site of a razed sauerkraut factory in Heinersdorf, a neighborhood of modest businesses and tidy houses where no one is Islamic. The Ahmadiyyas picked the 5,200-square-foot lot because it was cheap. Members will commute to worship services from elsewhere in Berlin.

Men wore turbans and flat top pakul hats to the ceremony. Women, wearing traditional scarves or covered head-to-toe by burkhas, were relegated to their own tent separate from the Muslim males and local government dignitaries, a segregation that did not endear them to their prospective neighbors. Even communism celebrated the equality of sexes.

"No mosque!" opponents chanted from the street.

Members of the Muslim congregation hope the soaring minaret of the planned mosque will become a local landmark. "People should not fear us," Iman Abdul Basit Tariq, the Pakistan-born leader of a flock of 200, said in an interview. "They should open their hearts to the beauty of Islam."

Instead, the neighborhood has fought the mosque with marches, candlelight vigils, and petitions. Residents have also filed legal complaints that could block construction.

The protests have been resolutely peaceful. But bureaucrats responsible for promoting integration have chided objectors for failing to embrace "cultural diversity," while self-described "anti-racist" activists have staged noisy countermarches through Heinersdorf. Mosque opponents -- who include teachers and tradesmen, pensioners and young professionals -- are angered by the charges of bigotry.

"Ideas of suppressing women and hatred for democratic values will soon be disseminated in the heart of our community," said Roland Henning, a musician who lives half a block from the planned mosque. "And those of us who ask, 'Why?' are the ones being called intolerant and xenophobic. Europe isn't just surrendering its culture. It's surrendering any sense of logic."

The controversy over the mosque is in some ways purely local, involving arcane zoning issues.

But the fight also highlights a new willingness to confront Muslims emerging not only in Germany but across the continent. Spain and Italy have been the scene of similar attempts to block mosques. Mistrust of Islam, once the provenance of cranks, is becoming mainstream.

Even such strongholds of tolerance as the Netherlands and Sweden are seeking to ban some contentious Muslim garb, such as veils and scarves, in public schools and government buildings.

For decades, Europe largely ignored its fast-growing Islamic population. No one knows the precise numbers of Muslims of Middle Eastern, African, and Asian descent living in Western Europe, but some estimates put the figure at 20 million, including at least 3.2 million in Germany and about 6 million in France.

Aside from a few right-wing groups railing against the influx, however, Europeans have for decades proudly hoisted the banner of multiculturalism, even as fundamentalism spread in Muslim communities and Islamic zealots preached against core democratic values.

"Europeans have used tolerance as the excuse for not confronting intolerance," said Bassam Tibi, a German political scientist who is a Muslim of Syrian heritage. "Europeans have stopped defending the values of their own civilization."

But a series of events is causing a shift in sentiment among many Europeans.

Europeans were stunned by the Sept. 11 , 2001, attacks in the United States and the deadly bombings of public transit systems in Madrid and London in 2004 and 2005 , respectively .

In some ways, however, they seemed more rattled by the bloody protests that exploded last year after a Danish newspaper published political cartoons that mocked the Prophet Mohammed. The cartoons, while offensive, fell within the bounds of commentary protected by free speech in the West. For Muslims, any depiction of the prophet is considered blasphemous.

European politicians and ordinary citizens in recent months have seemed willing to forgo political correctness in favor of a more hard-knuckled stance toward some Muslim practices and attitudes. "The time of cozy tea-drinking" with Muslim groups has passed, Rita Verdonk , the conservative Netherlands immigration minister, said in October.

Jack Straw, a prominent leader of the British Parliament, garnered international headlines last fall when he said he did not believe Muslim women should wear full-faced veils, calling such coverings "a visible statement of separation and difference."

When Pope Benedict XVI made an address in September that criticized Islamic concepts of holy war as "evil and inhuman," he was denounced across the Muslim world. But Europeans, generally, applauded the pontiff's forceful words -- or at least defended his right to utter them. Last month, Germany's prestigious Tuebingen University honored his remarks with its "Speech of the Year" award.

At least eight of Germany's 16 states, meanwhile, have forbidden female teachers from wearing headscarves in public schools, arguing that the attire imparts ideas of submission to girls.

In some ways, the dispute over the mosque in East Berlin is a similar sign of the new confrontational mood in Europe.

Opposition to the mosque comes not just from ultra-rightists, but from apolitical residents who see no reason why they should welcome a Muslim sect that preaches subservience of women and the supremacy of religious law.

Of the 6,500 registered voters in the Heinersdorf neighborhood, 6,000 have signed a petition opposing construction of the mosque, according to German media reports. That's a surprising percentage even in Eastern Germany, where mistrust of outsiders is more pronounced than in the west, reflecting old communist paranoia.

Residents seem genuinely disturbed by the notion of embracing a religious congregation whose leaders vociferously oppose, for example, such ordinary aspects of German life as allowing girls to participate in school sports or field trips. They also dislike Muslim preaching against infidels.

"Why should we be giving welcome to a group that hates German values and considers Christianity to be its enemy?" asked Joachim Swietlik, spokesman for the group opposed to the mosque. "Our concern isn't based on their skin color or their countries [of origin]. It's based on their contempt for the ideals of our liberal-democratic society."

The Ahmadiyya sect, although deeply conservative in social customs and theology, rejects holy war and other violence espoused by radical Islamists. Born in South Asia, it claims 30,000 members across Germany.

"We come in peace and hopes of acceptance," said Tariq, the iman who will live at the mosque and hold prayer services five times each day. "I don't think this conflict is really about our mosque. It's about fear of Muslims.

"Germans, like so many Europeans, associate Islam with terrorism," he said. "It will be decades, even generations, before we overcome such attitudes."