Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Many European cities have managed to restrict large worship spaces for Muslims, and this plan is also likely to be controversial.
One of Spain’s largest bullrings could soon start an unlikely new life as a mosque. That might sound like a strange metamorphosis, but the city of Barcelona is currently considering plans suggested last month by the Emir of Qatar to convert Barcelona’s Plaza Monumental into a place of prayer for up to 4,000 worshippers. Since the Catalonia region banned bullfighting in 2011, the arena has remained empty awaiting a new use, and rolling out prayer mats in a space once covered in blood-soaked sand could just be the answer. The former bullring could easily look the part, at least: It’s an elaborate Neo-Mudéjar building that draws inspiration from Spain’s Moorish past. With a projected cost of €2.2 billion, the Qataris are presumably planning something rather lavish for this already grand shell.
If the plan goes ahead, it will further pad the Qatari royal family’s already bulging property portfolio. In 2012 alone, the dynasty spent $4.3 billion on European real estate, and now owns so many key sites in Britain’s capital (including The Shard and Harrods department store) that it’s been described as having “bought London." While Qatari spending in Spain has so far been secular—they already have a five star hotel in Barcelona—the family has already been linked to mosque building projects elsewhere, such as a large Islamic center in Munich.
The politics of mosque building nonetheless remain very fraught in Europe, with substantial public resistance to the construction of any building with Islamic associations. So in trying to adapt an iconic building closely associated with Spanish tradition, will the Barcelona mosque proposals prove a step too far for the city’s public?
Not automatically; the bullring is no sacred site. And, in Catalonia, bullfighting is not always seen as part of local tradition but is associated instead with parts of Spain that speak Castilian Spanish, from which the large cross-party Catalan separatist movement would like to secede. When Catalonia banned bullfighting, it was not motivated by animal cruelty concerns alone, but also by a desire to emphasize Catalonia’s difference from the rest of the country. Thus, the arena itself has already been cold-shouldered as a torchbearer of local identity.
There’s still no doubt that mosque-building projects are met with strong resistance in Barcelona, which so far has no mosque at all despite having a Muslim population close to 300,000. The city has even been in this position before: Before Barcelona’s Las Arenas bullring became a shopping mall in 2010, it was also proposed as the site of a new mosque.
This is only repeating a pattern found across across Europe, where resistance often has official backing. In 2008, two Austrian provinces banned “conspicuous” Islamic buildings, while in 2009 a Swiss referendum revealed that 57.5% of voters supported a ban on the construction of new minarets in the country. Meanwhile, Paris has banned street prayers, a phenomenon that may have been less of an issue had Muslims been allowed to build more mosques in the first place.
As a result of this pressure, plans for large mosques such as this one in East London often end up being scaled down. The most common response by European Muslims has been to accommodate, choosing lower-profile locations and instituting compromises such as using a flashing light to summon worshippers instead of a call to prayer. Much press discussion of the subject is still inflammatory, talking of “mega mosques,” and thus implying a shock-and-awe demonstration of Islamic power.
The reality is that, as things stand, Europe’s 56 million Muslims are pretty tightly squeezed. Take London as an example. With more mosques and prayer rooms than any other European city excluding Istanbul (a total of 359), London might seem to be a veritable hive of Islamic buildings. But with roughly one million Muslims living in the city (12.4% of Greater London’s 8.4 million residents), that means there are 2,785 Muslims per place of worship, many of which are just small, converted stores. If this is what the ratio is like even in Europe’s most mosque-filled city, it shows what the strain must be like in places with fewer provisions. Barcelona has around 292,000 Muslim residents—the highest number in any Spanish city—but so far this population makes do with just 21 prayer rooms, mostly in basements and garages.
The city may well decide that it doesn’t want a historic landmark like El Monumental to end up reserved primarily for Muslims. Still, if the city is to have any claim to care about the choices of 292,000 of its residents, it will eventually have to find some space somewhere.