All That’s Changing Is The Building - The Reykjavik Grapevine

All That’s Changing Is The Building

All That’s Changing Is The Building

Published August 23, 2013

Gabríel Benjamin
Photo by
Axel Sigurðarson

The Association of Muslims in Iceland has been cramped in the first floor of a building in the industrial neighbourhood of Skeifan for the last decade. Their 170-square-metre mosque is fitted with a kitchen, a toilet, and a small prayer room, which barely accommodates the congregation. And when it comes to special functions such as weddings or funerals, they must relocate to a chapel in Fossvogur. With 475 members, the Association is desperately in need of more space.

Recently, the Planning Committee of Reykjavík City Council approved a plot of land for the building of a mosque large enough for the Association in Sogamýri. The new mosque is expected to be 800 square metres, capable of hosting a range of functions, and with a library attached. The congregation will soon hold an architectural competition in association with the City Council to design the mosque. We met with Sverrir Agnarson, an Icelandic Muslim and the Association’s chair for the last two years, to discuss these developments.

How long has it taken the association to get the plot for the new mosque?

The first application was submitted in 1999, and the fact that it has taken 13 years to be approved tells you that something is not right.

Do you know why it’s taken this long?

No, but I suppose they do not like Muslims.

And who are they?

The Independence Party, but they are no longer in power [The Best Party governs Reykjavík City Council today], and they have also changed over these years.

FIRST SUCCESSFUL APPLICATION

When did you submit your newest application?

For the past two years we’ve worked with the City to find a place for us. Two or three weeks ago they accepted the plan, so now we have submitted our application, and we will get a formal answer in two weeks’ time, although everybody says it has been granted. In 2006, the religious communities that did not have buildings were promised plots for them, as religious communities are entitled to one piece of land for free. The promise was made in 2006 to the pagan society, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Buddhists. The three of them have their land, and now we will get ours.

During this process, has the Council been trying to accommodate your needs?

Yes. It maybe has something to do with ECRI [the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance], which put this application on their watch list four years ago. ECRI visits European countries every four years and asks very simple questions: what’s the situation with the Jews, women, and Muslims? If they don’t like the situation, they make a complaint, which would label Iceland as being racist and intolerant. And Reykjavík doesn’t want this, so that probably helped the application.

PAN-EUROPEAN PROBLEMS

What kind of feedback has the Association received regarding the mosque?

I think it’s actually been positive. Most people were happy, but there is a small group protesting the mosque, and they have more than two thousand members on their Facebook page. But all the people I know are very positive, and I haven’t had people come up to me with negative criticism. I do see what the opponents write though, and I think the guys fighting against this are not very high class.

Has your congregation run into discrimination?

Not so much, actually. It’s the same reality as in most of Europe, where it is more difficult for dark skinned people to get work. But the Muslims who live here are pleased with Iceland as Icelanders are very nice to them. It has been a little bit difficult being Muslim in the last few years, and some of the more hateful speech involves distorting what Islam actually is.

FEMALE LEADERSHIP

Muslims have been accused of not supporting gender equality. How do you respond to that accusation?

I just recommend people read the Quran, where I don’t see any sexism. I know the verses people like to interpret that way, but that interpretation is not common in Islam. You find that interpretation repeated within small extremist groups, and from Islamophobists. One of our five board members is a woman, and we abide by Icelandic equality laws. If it’s the law in Iceland, then it’s our law.

Is there then a possibility of getting a female to lead prayer?

If I speak for myself, I would remind people that there have been sessions in New York for example, where a woman has led prayers. It created a lot of fuss, and discussion, but several of the learned scholars supported it. I personally have nothing against it, but I don’t speak for the community, some of whom would have difficulty with that.

And are there other members that would support it?

Yes, some. There is currently a big movement of Islamist Feminism emerging, and they are making a lot of progress. It is very debated, but of course the women will win, as they always do. It’s an inevitable change, and there is nothing in the tenets of Islam that would not allow it. If a female guest speaker were to come

AN ICELANDIC MOSQUE WITH ICELANDIC VALUES

Where will you be getting the funds to raise the mosque?

We haven’t started raising money, but we will be very careful not to risk our independence with strict conditions of accepting donations. We want to be an Icelandic mosque for Icelandic Muslims. We would prefer to get the money from individuals who give in the name of Allah and not for themselves or their ideology. We have to raise somewhere between 250–350 million ISK, and we’d like to finish building the mosque in two years, and given the process we can probably start building next spring.

Former Mayor Ólafur F. Magnússon said that the new mosque endangered the culture and safety of Iceland, and others have gone so far as to say that it will be a breeding ground for terrorism in Iceland. How do you respond to these accusations?

We have been running a mosque in Iceland for ten years now, and nobody is complaining about it. We have not bred any terrorism or made any problems for anybody, so I don’t think that will change. The only thing that will change is the building. This mosque is now too small for us. We would also like to have more space for a library and a place to host lectures, introducing people to Islam in a better and more efficient way.

Converting To Islam

Sverrir converted to Islam when he was in his twenties. In 1972, Sverrir was working as a horse herder in Spain, and decided to visit the Himalayas. Whilst in Pakistan he was introduced to Islam, and was fascinated with the idea of having no image of god, but worshipping something you didn’t quite understand. After discussions with mystics, he was convinced and has remained a practicing Muslim since.

Raising The Mosque

Former chair of the Association of Muslims Salmann Tamimi tells us about the application process, which they reiterated and chased on a yearly basis. The City Planning Committee has always been eager to help, but the application was stalled year and year.

  • 1999: The first application for a plot of land is handed to then Mayor of Reykjavík Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir. Originally, the Association looked at Öskjuhlíð as a possible site.
  • 2004: The Association receives no answer about their suggested plot in Öskjuhlíð and suggests a plot near Elliðaárdalur.
  • 2006: The Independence and Progressive parties form a coalition government. Three religious communities are given vacant plots. The Association of Muslims in Iceland is not given one. Mayor Vilhjálmur Þ. Vilhjálmsson says the plot in Elliðaárdalur is unsuited for a mosque and would be a nature reserve.
  • 2008: Ólafur F. Magnússon becomes mayor of Reykjavík for the Liberal Party. Five members are kicked out of the Association of Muslims for negative and racist attitudes. They form their own congregation, called the Islamic Cultural Centre of Iceland.
  • 2010: A new coalition of the Best Party and Social Democratic Alliance forms City Council.
  • 2011: Reykjavík City Council reaches out to the Association of Muslims and starts looking for suitable land.
  • 2013: The Planning Committee of Reykjavík City Council approve plot of land for the building of a Mosque. Ólafur F. Magnússon and others condemn the plans.
  • 2015: Expected completion of the mosque.
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