BERLIN, Dec. 8 (UPI) -- Muslims living in Germany don't believe a Swiss-like minaret ban is possible here, but they say they feel threatened by growing Islamophobia.
"I was made a Turk," says Burhan Kesici, the vice president of the Islamic Federation Berlin, a group that represents 12 Muslim congregations in this city.
Born and raised in Germany, Kesici for the first 35 years of his life told everyone that he was "German, a Berliner." Yet all those years, people replied that he wasn't really German. Sadly, Kesici has given up telling those people otherwise. "Today I'm saying that I'm a Turk." He even moved to Turkey a few years ago, but soon came back to Germany because he realized that this was his home -- although people here don't always make him feel that way.
"Latent Islamophobia is growing here in Germany," Kesici told a group of journalists during a tour of some of Berlin's mosques last week.
Especially since Sept. 11, 2001, Muslims in Europe feel they are put under general suspicion and marginalized by society. An estimated 4 million Muslims are living in Germany, some 120,000 of those in Berlin.
Kesici said migrant organizations have in the past years tried to establish ties with non-Muslim clubs and organizations, but with limited success.
"There is this non-graspable fear of fundamentalism," he said. "There is a lot of fear and resentment."
As a result, some Muslim congregations have been retreating from the majority society, relying on the company of their peers instead.
Some Germans fear that Islamic parallel societies are established in the country's big cities that they see as breeding grounds for crime, extremism and human-rights abuses. Berlin is an example often cited, with schools in the Neukoelln district made up of students solely from a migrant background. This also reduces the chances for a good job: Some 40 percent of migrants have no job, Kesici said.
The tour came on the heels of a Swiss referendum to ban minarets, a vote that has sparked criticism across Europe.
Kesici said he didn't believe a similar decision would be possible in Germany. "When it comes to the building of mosques, we have always has sensible discussions with authorities," he said.
Berlin is home to some 80 mosques, but only five of them are recognizable as such because they have minarets; the remaining 75 are so-called backyard mosques, prayer rooms located in community halls and buildings in industrial districts. Critics often accuse Muslim congregations here of receiving financing from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and of preaching fundamental views.
But Muslim leaders say that's an unfair accusation, adding that their communities offer more than just prayers.
"We are taking on social responsibility in our communities," said Selcuk Saydam, the spokesman of the Haci Bayram Mosque, a congregation founded by Turkish guest workers in the 1970s. Because many of the young Muslims from the Haci Bayram community have poor grades, Muslim leaders visit families to "explain them how important education is."
The Haci Bayram congregation, which counts between 300 and 1,000 active members, relies on private donations and the work of dedicated Muslims like Saydam to do community work.
While some mosques get financing or personnel from foreign countries, they do that mainly because they lack the money to pay for their own imam.
If they did, they would choose one who grew up and was educated in Germany, said Pinar Cetin, a senior member of the Sehitlik Mosque in Berlin's Neukoelln district, near the closed-down Tempelhof Airport.
"The imams from Turkey don't speak German … and it's very difficult for them to relate to the problems of the migrants here," she said, sitting in the beautifully adorned main prayer room of the mosque. "We need imams that have grown up here, who speak German … but no one knows how to finance them."
The Sehitlik Mosque is a beautiful building, complete with a traditional dome construction and two lavishly adorned minarets that stretch some 100 feet into the air.
If you see the building, you would wonder why anyone has something against minarets.
"I don't like it if we have had to hide our faith," Cetin said.
She added that integration is about feeling welcome, and about getting to know each other.
"The Muslims have been living here for 50 years and all of a sudden they are perceived as a threat," she said. "Why? Because we have not really gotten to know each other."
Cetin aims to change that. In her spare time she gives guided tours of the mosque to explain its architectural and religious peculiarities and to introduce her congregation.
"Once the people have been in here, a lot of fears are gone," she said.