Iman Abdullah in front of Berlin's Wilmersdorfer Mosque in 1930. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Islam in the Weimar Republic

Foreign Policy, 05/05/2016, When Europe Loved Islam

recent article in this blog dealt with the new party manifesto of the populist Alternative für Deutschland that demands, amongst others, bans on minarets and burkas to defend "German culture". It specifically states that "Islam does not belong to Germany" as it does not respect Germany's legal system. However, as Foreign Policy points out, Islam used to be viewed very differently in Western Europe. In the early 20th century, the progressive elites of Germany, the Netherlands, France and Britain were fascinated by the exotic spirituality of Islam. After World War I many Germans were disillusioned by Western civilisation and sought refuge in a spiritual alternative to Christianity - and many saw Islam as an appropriate answer, with some even converting to the religion. Indeed, FP writes that Islam in the Weimar Republic could be seen as the countercultural spiritual movement of the time. Those interested in the religion attended lectures at the grand Wilmersdorfer Moschee, run by the Lahore-Ahmadiyya-Movement, to find answers to spiritual and worldly questions.

by the Know Nothing Enquirer   06/05/2016

Islam is not as foreign to Germany as parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland might suggest. The theologist from Hamburg was the worldwide second to print the Quran in Arabic in 1694 (printing with Arabic letters was forbidden in the Islamic world until the 19th century). In 1731, the first Muslim prayer room in Germany was established under Frederick William I of Prussia in Potsdam. Several mosques were built in the following centuries, such as the one on the Schwetzingen Palace grounds. Even though it was never intended for prayer, it did serve as a religious building at various occasions. The mosque, that was built between 1779 and 1793, is part of the large Schwetzingen palace gardens. The gardens were heavily inspired by the age of enlightenment and the mosque was supposed to symbolise religious and cultural tolerance. Lessing's "Nathan the Wise" is one of the best examples of the notion of humanism and tolerance of the age of enlightenment in Germany.


A baroque mosque on the palace grounds of Schwetzinger Schloss. (Photo: Friedrich Haag)


The Wilmersdorfer Moschee in Berlin. (Photo: Axel Mauruszat)


The courtyard of the Grand Mosque of Paris. (Photo: Eric-Olivier Le Bigot)

The first proper mosque in Germany was built in 1915 for World War I Muslim prisoners of war in a camp close to Berlin. The prisoner-of-war camp was established to exclusively house Muslims. The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire had reached out to all Muslims fighting for the allied forces to go to jihad against the United Kingdom and France. As the Ottoman Empire was an ally of Germany during the war, the camp was established to house them in relative luxury and gave them everything they needed to practice their religion. Ramadan was observed and the mosque built. It is unclear, however, how many Muslim soldiers actually switched sides.


The Wilmersdorfer Moschee in Berlin, built between 1924 and 1927, was designed in the Mogul style heavily inspired by the Taj Mahal. The mosque, that was financed by donations, was the centre of the "countercultural" Islamic movement in the Weimar Republic. Preaches and lectures at the mosque were given in German, as they were mainly targeting upper-middle class Germany. Some converts, such as Hugo Marcus, a gay Jewish philosopher and publisher of the Moslemische Revue, even argued that Islam was a necessary component in creating the Nietzsche inspired "New Man".

The special treatment of Muslims was not only something specific to Germany, as FP points out. The French state, for example, built several opulent mosques in the country as a token of gratitude for the Muslim soldiers that died in WWI. In the UK several mosques were built, such as the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking. It was a Muslim immigrant from India, Sake Dean Mahomed, who introduced South Asian food and Shampoo to Europe when he started the first Indian restaurant in London in 1810. 


While for many Europeans in the interwar period the feelings towards Islam can be seen as genuine, the motives of the governments are not that clear. Germany, of course, gave Muslim prisoners of war preferential treatment as they hoped to convince them to fight on their side and to potentially cause uprises in the French and British colonies. France and Britain, on the other hand, treated Muslim troops with special care, as they were an important part of their armies. Whereas Muslims had imams and halal meat on the battle fields, Jewish soldiers had no such special treatment. Over 100,000 Muslim soldiers alone died fighting for the French army in WWI. 


The Shah Jahan Mosque in the Building News and Engineering Journal. (Photo: W. I. Chambers)

The perception of Islam in Western Europe has changed dramatically since the interwar period. In the recent Saxony Anhalt state elections, the Alternative für Deutschland won 24.3%, mostly because of its opposition to the German government's refugee policy and what many of the party officials see as the "islamisation" of Europe. Similarly in France, in the 2015 regional elections the right wing-party Front National won nearly 28% of the votes. 


So where did the vilification of Islam come from? Most Western European states saw a huge influx of Muslims in the 1960s and 1970s. And most notably: 9/11 and the resulting war on terror left a huge scar on the public perception of Islam in the West.


Obviously the practice of "othering" Islam is not new, as the Edward Said points out in his book "Orientalism". He writes that the "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arab–Islamic peoples and their culture" has always existed. As can be seen, for example, in Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio" or Disney's Aladdin. Of course, the Islamic perception of Weimar Republic Islamic converts was also romanticised and based on stereotypes. 


The authors of the Foreign Policy article remind the reader that Islam has a far longer history in Western Europe than most people would acknowledge. Instead of treating Muslims as threatening outsiders, they should be seen as an integral part of European public life. The image of Islam in the Western European mosques in the interwar period was not seen as a threat but rather as an enriching spiritual and philosophical religion - without any "repressive, anti-intellectual, or threatening associations".


Further reading:

Motadel, David (2014); Islam and European EmpiresOxford Scholarship Online 

Motadel, David (2014); Islam and Nazi Germany's War, Harvard University Press

Waters, Florence (10 August 2014); Germany's grand First World War jihad experimentThe Telegraph