Before the continent started banning hijab, European aristocrats used to change their names to Abdullah and Muhammad, and going to the local mosque was the latest trend.
From the outside, with its high minarets and bulbous Mughal-style dome, the Wilmersdorf mosque, located on Brienner Street in southwest Berlin, looks much the same as it did when it was built in the 1920s. But the institution, just like the city around it, has changed.
Today, the mosque is a quiet place. It mainly serves as an information center: School children sometimes visit on field trips; it hosts interfaith brunches. A small community of Muslims regularly show up for Friday prayer. It’s all a far cry from the days when the Wilmersdorf mosque was the lively center of a spiritual countercultural movement in the Weimar Republic.
The Ahmadiyya missionaries from British India’s Punjab region who built the mosque attracted a varied crowd in 1920s Berlin, hosting lectures that tapped into the philosophical questions of the day. Topics included the growing gap between life and doctrine; the future of Europe; and the future of humanity as a whole. Germans of all ages, wrestling with their profound disillusionment in Christian civilization in the wake of World War I and seeking a religious alternative that was modern and rational, as well as spiritual, attended these lectures, and many of them ultimately converted to Islam.
It’s an odd scene to imagine in today’s Germany, where the right-wing Alternative for Germany party has called for a ban on burqas and minarets, and more than half of Germans say they view Islam as a threat. But in the interwar period, Berlin boasted a thriving Muslim intelligentsia comprising not only immigrants and students from South Asia and the Middle East but German converts from all walks of life. Islam, at the time, represented a countercultural, even exotic, form of spirituality for forward-thinking leftists: Think Buddhism, in 1970s California.
Germans were no exception in displaying this kind of openness and even fascination with Islam. The early 20th century saw the emergence of the first Muslim communities and institutions in Western Europe and, with them, came converts in Britain and the Netherlands, as well. It’s a virtually forgotten period of history — but one of particular relevance today, as the relationship between Islam and Europe is increasingly marked by wariness and at times outright hostility.
Even the more nuanced discussions about Islam in Europe — those that take into account the structural factors that have marginalized the continent’s Muslim populations — still, for the most part, treat the presence of the religion as a new and thorny phenomenon, something foreign to European cultural and political life as we know it. But a look back at the early 20th century — primarily the period after the first wave of Muslim immigration to Europe in the wake of World War I — shows that not so long ago Western Europe and Islam had a very different relationship, one characterized by curiosity on the part of citizens and almost a sort of favoritism on the part of governments. At the same time that European citizens were experimenting with an exotic eastern religion, European governments were providing special treatment for Muslim citizens and catering to them in ways that might at first glance seem surprising: The secular French government spent lavishly on ostentatious mosques, while Germany sought to demonstrate its superior treatment of Muslims, when compared to France and Britain. Examining this past serves as a reminder that not only is this not a new encounter, but the relationship between Western Europe and Islam was not always what it is today and may not always look this way in the future.
Converts like Hugo Marcus, a gay Jewish philosopher, show Islam wasn’t just present in Europe in the years after World War I — for some, it played a vital role in discussions about what the continent’s future should look like. Marcus, who helped run the Wilmersdorf mosque, was born in 1880 and moved to Berlin to study philosophy. He converted in 1925, after tutoring young South Asian Muslim immigrants. Adopting the Muslim name Hamid, Marcus wrote articles for the mosque’s publication, Moslemische Revue, in which he engaged with the philosophers popular at the time — Goethe, Nietzsche, Spinoza, and Kant — to argue that Islam was a necessary component in crafting the “New Man.” Used to describe an ideal future citizen, the “New Man” was a trendy philosophical concept taken up by everyone from the socialists to the fascists and was central to both Soviet and National Socialist imagery. For Marcus, Islam, as the monotheistic successor to Judaism and Christianity, was the missing component at the heart of this “man of the future.”
The Ahmadiyya mission also managed another mosque in Western Europe — the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, England. The mosque was commissioned in 1889, by Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, a polyglot Anglo-Hungarian Orientalist who was, by most accounts, not a convert but had served as an interpreter in the Crimean War and travelled widely throughout the Muslim world. With no one to oversee its operations after the death of its eccentric founder 10 years later, the building fell into disuse. But just before World War I, Indian-born barrister and Ahmadiyya missionary Khwaja Kamaluddin took over the property, revived it, and transformed it into the Woking mission. The mosque, located just 30 miles south of London, successfully nabbed converts from among Britain’s Downton Abbey-era upper and middle classes and others who shared in their dissatisfaction with Christianity and modern Western society. One of the more legendary converts of the time was the Irish peer Lord Headley. Born Rowland George Allanson Allanson-Winn, the 5th Baron Headley converted to Islam in 1913, adopting the Muslim name Shaikh Rahmatullah al-Farooq. Lord Headley became a poster child, of sorts, for British Muslim converts; in the 1920s, he went on a widely published pilgrimage to Mecca and would, in his life, write a number of books and articles on Islam, which he was certain would have a glorious future in Britain.
It seems clear that, on an individual level, Islam won over some Europeans looking for a break from tradition in the modern world. Pieter Henricus van der Hoog, a Dutch dermatologist who founded a cosmetics company that still provides women in the Netherlands with face creams and firming masks today, converted during this period and went on pilgrimage to Mecca. Harry St. John Philby, a British intelligence officer and father of Kim Philby, the infamous double agent, converted when living in Saudi Arabia in 1930 and went by Abdullah. Another convert from this period, the Jewish writer Leopold Weiss, adopted the name Muhammad Asad; his son, Talal Asad, is one of the most influential anthropologists alive today.
But Western European governments in the early 20th century also demonstrated a tolerance and even a partiality toward Islam that might surprise contemporary readers — though their motivations were often more cynical than those of their citizens.
During World War I, France and Britain relied on their colonial subjects — many of whom were Muslim — to serve on European battlefields, and so they paid a great deal of attention to the needs of these troops. Imams were attached to regiments, and Muslims in the armies received special halal provisions: Instead of pork and wine, they were given couscous, coffee, and mint tea. (Jewish regiments, on the other hand, received no such special treatment.) On the German side, the country’s first mosque was built in a prisoner of war camp in Wünsdorf to accommodate captured Muslim soldiers and demonstrate to them how much better Germans treated them than the French or British. The result, they hoped, would create unrest among Muslim populations in the colonies of Germany’s two rivals.
In the postwar period, anticolonial movements’ increasing emphasis on Islamic identity made those same European governments increasingly anxious. Secret services were dispatched to the coffee shops of the continent, where Muslim intellectuals — including Shakib Arslan, one of the most important pan-Islamists in interwar Europe, who was based in Geneva and is the grandfather of contemporary Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt — had started to tout a pan-Islamic message of resistance.
But European governments also tried to win over Muslims through the soft power of propaganda. In 1926, more than two decades after affirming its commitment to secularism, or laïcité, in a 1905 law, the French state relied on a variety of loopholes to finance the construction of the Grande Mosquée de Paris — an act that left many of the nation’s Catholics outraged at the state’s preferential treatment toward Muslims. Ostensibly, the mosque was to serve as a tribute to the Muslim soldiers who had fought for France during the war: When the foundation stone was laid in 1922, Parisian municipality official Paul Fleurot proudly declared that when France had found itself in danger in 1914, its Muslims in Africa did not hesitate to come to its defense: Muslims, he said, “were not the last to answer the call of the fatherland in danger.… Many gave their lives in defense of civilization.” He added that the mosque was an expression of France’s gratitude, a commemorative memorial for the Muslim soldiers who fell on the country’s behalf.
In fact, historians now see the mosque as a piece of colonialist propaganda, meant to give rich visitors a taste of French imperial might in the Muslim world. North African workers in Paris lived far from the mosque, and its prayer times did not accommodate their factory schedules; the high prices of the bathhouse and restaurant made it unaffordable for all but a handful of French and Moroccan elites. The mosque, built in the fifth arrondissement, across from the Jardin des Plantes, still survives today; tourists from all over the world come to enjoy a cup of mint tea and baklava in the café or purchase a Moroccan rug in the gift shop, inhaling some “eastern atmosphere” in the heart of Paris.
In 1935, the secular French state again singled out its Muslim subjects, building a hospital in Bobigny, a small commune in northeast Paris, that was exclusively for Muslim use. This hospital was supposedly erected to uphold the republican value of equality by providing special care for Muslims: Patients were provided halal food, and the building itself, designed by French architects in what they saw as a “North African” style, was equipped with prayer halls and a Muslim cemetery. At the same time, the hospital also kept Muslims out of Parisian public wards, at a time when French citizens expressed concerns that North African workers might carry dangerous venereal diseases — a sign that, for all their unexpected curiosity about Islam, Europeans were also often racist. The hospital serves as a good example of a colonial government strategy typical for the period: provide services to Muslim residents both to help win their favor and to bring them under the control of the state.
In the buildup to World War II, and during the war itself, efforts of states to win the favor of Muslims took on new urgency. During this period, Britain helped finance two mosques in London, while the Nazis attempted to convince Muslims, especially in Eastern Europe, to join their fight against the Soviets. Particularly in the Balkans, Crimea, and the Caucasus, the Nazis presented themselves as the protectors of Islam. Propaganda disseminated through radio and leaflets focused on anti-bolshevism, anti-Judaism, and anti-British imperialism. (Muslim legions in the German army were created, but many of the soldiers who signed up did so for the better conditions rather than out of ideological considerations.)
This period — in which Europeans and their governments courted Muslims and Islam — ironically foreshadows the treatment of Islam in Western Europe today: Special attention to Muslims, rather than a sign of acceptance, was often driven by a perceived threat to national interests stemming from the religion’s politically subversive potential. This impulse is not so different than the thinking behind state-sponsored Imam-training programs that have cropped up in Britain and the Netherlands in recent years.
The scars of battle and the passage of time have left their mark on Berlin’s Wilmersdorf mosque. In the final stages of World War II, it was transformed into a battlefield when, during the Russian invasion of Berlin, Nazi troops dug trenches in its tranquil gardens and fired upon enemy soldiers from its high minarets. During the fighting, one of the minarets was all but destroyed, and the mosque was seriously damaged. Though it has since been reconstructed, the mosque has never quite returned to its former glory. Today, its attendance, while steady, is mostly limited to Friday prayers, and its storied history is known to few.
In the eventful decades following the war, this brief period — when some Europeans embraced Islam — has also faded from memory. Just why isn’t clear: perhaps because the recent and larger influx of Muslim workers in the 1960s and 1970s made Muslims an increasingly visible minority in these countries, rather than a tiny fraction of the population, and brought with it increased tensions. Or perhaps because, since 9/11, the events that have marked the relationship between Western society and the Middle East have often overshadowed its history.
Nevertheless, looking back is important for understanding the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to the rich and complex history of Islam in Western Europe. If governments, in their zeal to win over Muslim populations, singled them out in ways that may have helped lay the groundwork for the sense of “otherness” Europe feels toward Islam today, the Wilmersdorf mosque represents an alternative vision, a nod to a time when Islam did not, in European minds, come with repressive, anti-intellectual, or threatening associations. Imagining the lectures once held at Woking and Wilmersdorf and their varied audiences — by some accounts, German novelist Thomas Mann attended once — allows us to envision a relationship between Europe and Islam characterized by dialogue and fluidity.
The history of Muslims and Islam in Western Europe is both older and more entangled than many think, and acknowledging this helps us imagine a future in which Muslims can be seen as an integral and equal part of European public life, rather than timeless or threatening outsiders.
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