The representatives of Shia congregations1 convened in Bochum in April 2022 to sign a statement reacting to the German government’s banning and confiscation of two Shia mosques.2 The signatories including 58 Shia associations from different cities in Germany, stated that this move was unprecedented in Germany since World War II and aimed at criminalizing the Shia Religious Authority Institution (Marja’iyya). This statement highlighted the challenges faced by the local Shia communities in claiming a space for religious activities in Germany. The strained relationship between the German government and Shia centers is best exemplified when looking at the Imam Ali Mosque in Hamburg,3 which has been in a precarious state since 2016 due to being accused of having alleged ties to the Iranian government, the antisemitic rhetoric,4 and serving as a gathering place for Hezbollah sympathizers.5 These controversies led to the mosque’s temporary closure in 2017, the expulsion of its deputy chief, and continued monitoring by German authorities.However, the Shia community in Germany is much more diverse than this one-dimensional and homogeneous portrayal, encompassing a wide range of ethnicities, cultures, and religious beliefs and it seems that these tensions cast a shadow over the Shia local spaces across Germany.
Regarding this problematic portrayal of the Shia community in Germany, I embarked upon a fieldwork inquiry into Shia Mosque situated in Bochum. Although its modest exterior may suggest otherwise, this particular site holds significant importance for the Shia community residing in the city and state of North Rhine Westphalia. As relayed by G., a member of the mosque, the strong bonds forged within the congregation have deterred numerous individuals from migrating to pursue occupational prospects elsewhere. G. states, “Without the mosque, many things would be difficult.”
In addition, the mosque carries an oral history that has evolved into a shared narrative among its members, indicating the community’s ebbs and flows over time. According to the mosque-holders, the Shia Moschee in Bochum is the oldest mosque in the North Rhine Westphalia. After a conflict between former Sunni Muslim members and newly converted Shiites, the mosque was handed over to the Shiites. Over the course of two years, the mosque underwent renovations and modernizations, including an expansion of its space. Nevertheless, in 2013, the mosque encountered a tax predicament that resulted in its confiscation. The members of the mosque took matters into their own hands and purchased the mosque back from the government.
Yet, the ongoing challenge of preserving the religious spaces in the face of politicized representations of the Shia community is also exemplified in this case. While the German state distrusts them, the Shiites strive to disengage from political agendas and depoliticize themselves in order to safeguard their space. However, not only the state is involved in representing Shiism as a political ideology, but also some visitors to the Bochum Shia Mosque view Imam Ali mosque in Hamburg as a political Shia institution. The political nature of the Hamburg Mosque burdens ordinary members of the Shiite community with imposed political identities and decentralizes it as the exclusive Shia worship space. As seen from the visitors’ perspective of the Bochum Moschee, one advantage it holds over the Hamburg Mosque is its non-political nature. J., who compares Bochum Moschee to Hamburg Mosque in terms of their relationship with politics, observes that “Here [Bochum Shia Mosque], they don’t talk about politics […] they know that we, Iranians, are not interested. But in Hamburg, it is done […]. I think Germany does not have a problem with religion as long as it is normal […] unless it is tied to political issues like Hezbollah and extremely generates taboo things.” Unlike J., the holders of the mosque do not accept the German authorities’ neutrality regarding their Shia beliefs. They believe that the German state exhibits hostility towards their religious entity in an intensifying and irreconcilable manner. M., one of the members of the mosque, explains: “Recently, a Lebanese mosque was closed on the pretext that they have a direct or indirect connection with Hezbollah because they posted someone’s photo. In the letter that mentioned the reason for closing, they wrote that your mosque is related to a Shiite Marja.6 That’s why I say they [German authorities] hate us. Which Shiite Mosque and small place run by Shias is not related to a Marja? It is impossible! In Shia, you must have a Marja.”
This concealed strife has transformed the mosque into a vulnerable space for its members. Although owning a place provides potential and real opportunities for Shia community membership, they apprehend that the existence and endurance of the mosque are in constant jeopardy. “All the Shiite mosques are on the brink of being shut down. We know that one day they might come and close this mosque. We know, but we do not care,” says M. However, their depoliticization efforts aim not only to safeguard the place against the state but also to protect the members of the community. “No political activities are permitted here, only Shiite beliefs. There is no authorization for the promotion or slander of any particular Marja. Political debates are prohibited both in the sermons and among the congregation. Especially since 90% of the students have issues with the Iranian government, we only focus on religious matters, and even in religious classes, there is no room for political discourse,” mentions one of the mosque administrators.
As community members confront this challenge, they perceive the State and Society as separate entities. This division is reflected in their language by using “Germany” and “Germans.” While Germany symbolizes authoritative power and is deemed a primary threat, its significance is downplayed: “We don’t want to present ourselves better in front of the authorities.” Nevertheless, it is important for them to pursue peace and reconciliation with German society. Paradoxically, despite the community’s abstract separation, these two converge in shaping its desire to withdraw from visible religious expression in public spaces. M. explains his reluctance to hold Ashura7 processions in the streets: “Street processions could be seen as political, and we choose not to do it. For instance, consider the possible implications of such a procession for German society. A ceremony where people cry, shout, and jump up and down? This could be alarming and unpleasant for Germans.”
In various aspects of mosque life, there exists a voluntary inclination towards invisibility. This is evident in the removal of the mosque entrance sign “for some reason,” the mosque website remaining stagnant, reluctance to gather around the mosque after ceremonies, and the rejection of an Ashura procession. All of these actions signify a deliberate rejection of a visible presence in public space, highlighting persistence as more crucial than public visibility. The space provides the members with a sense of “the right to have a membership,”8 which had been stripped from them due to pre-existing stereotypical, racial, and political views of their identity. More importantly, this space offers the possibility of realizing the future. What makes the inward-looking and invisible life meaningful for the members is the reorientation of their objectives towards the future, with the preservation of the place being the guarantee of this future: “We have grasped what we should have, and if someone hasn’t, it will be difficult for them to understand now. Our aim is to raise the next generation to learn these things. Our work is centered on children.”
– Zahra Naghshband
- The Islamische Gemeinschaft der schiitischen Gemeinden in Germany was established in Berlin in 2009 with the aim of connecting Shiite communities throughout Germany and declaring representation of the interests of Shiites in Germany.
- For full text of the statement see https://www.igs-deutschland.org/news/news-aus-der-igs/472-erklaerung-der-schiitischen-muslime-in-deutschland.
- It is also called “Blaue Moschee” and supports Islamische Zentrum Hamburg (IZH) which represents the center of Shia Islam in Germany.
- For further information regarding these accusations refer to the following report: https://ajcgermany.org/system/files/document/AJC-Berlin_IZH-Broschuere_43S_A5%281%29.pdf.
- For further information regarding the controversy about the Shia Mosque in Hamburg look at this post: https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/iran-blaue-moschee-islamisches-zentrum-hamburg-faeser-spionage-1.5755787.
- Shiites generally follow a Marja in terms of jurisprudence. Marja al-taqlid is a term used to refer to a highly learned and respected religious authority that is considered qualified to provide guidance and rulings on Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) to laypeople. Marja al-taqlid is therefore an individual whom Shia Muslims can follow in matters of religious practice and observance. Nonetheless, contrary to popular belief, this phenomenon is not applicable among all Shia groups.
- For Shia Muslims, Ashura is a solemn day of mourning the martyrdom of Hussein-the third Imam- in 680 C.E. at Karbala. The commemoration of Ashura is one of the most significant rituals among Shia believers.
- Arendt describes political existence as the “right to be a member of the community.” She argues that without membership in a community, a person cannot have dignity, as dignity relies on recognition from the political community to which one belongs or seeks to join (Arendt, H. (1949) ‘The rights of man; what are they?’).