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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 July 2018

How $100m Muslim centre is building bridges in the US amid Islamophobic climate

Even as Republican presidential candidates create acrimony towards Muslims, the new Turkish-funded Diyanet Centre of America is bringing together people of different faiths and cultures.
At the heart of the Diyanet Centre complex in Lanham, Maryland is an Ottoman-style mosque with space for 1,400 worshippers. Courtesy Diyanet Centre of America
At the heart of the Diyanet Centre complex in Lanham, Maryland is an Ottoman-style mosque with space for 1,400 worshippers. Courtesy Diyanet Centre of America

PHILADELPHIA // Even as Republican presidential candidates create acrimony towards Muslims, a new US$100 million Islamic community centre – the largest in the United States – is trying to build stronger ties between people of different faiths.

The Diyanet Centre of America, which was funded by Turkey’s religious directorate, will be inaugurated on Saturday by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Mr Erdogan is in the US to attend the two-day Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, which began on Thursday.

The Diyanet Centre, which takes its name from a Turkish word denoting the authority for Islamic religious affairs, is spread across more than 6 hectare of Lanham, in the state of Maryland, roughly 21 kilometres from the capital.

At the heart of the complex is an Ottoman-style mosque with space for 1,400 worshippers. There is also a recreation centre with a swimming pool, Turkish baths, and a gym; a library and auditorium; conference rooms; two restaurants; and guesthouses.

The site used to be far less grand, said Ahmet Aydilek, an engineering professor at the University of Maryland who serves as the general secretary of the centre’s board of directors.

The ground was swampy, and for many years, only a small mosque stood here.

“It had a congregation of maybe 50 people, all Turks,” Mr Aydilek told The National.

In 2008, during a previous visit to DC by Mr Erdogan, the local Turkish community – numbering around 20,000 across the capital, south-eastern Maryland, and north-eastern Virginia – proposed the construction of a larger complex.

“Everyone said we should think about a community centre that would serve not only Muslims but also non-Muslims, and that would host interfaith and intercultural activities,” Mr Aydilek said.

Mr Erdogan’s government commissioned a group of architects for the project who specialise in recreating Ottoman-era buildings, and construction began in 2012.

Before the Diyanet Centre “these architects have built only mosques, including one as far away as Tokyo”, said Mr Aydilek. “This was the first time they were building a community centre.”

The mosque’s interior, painted in soothing tones of cream and jade, features ornamental mosaic work in blue and gold. Two minarets rise up from the low-slung mosque, above its slate-grey domes, to pierce the sky.

“We really made it a point that a lot of traditional arts of Turkey are showcased in this mosque,” said Sibel Ozkan, a Virginia-based architect who designed a row of 10 small guesthouses within the complex.

“A lot of artisans came over from Turkey to work on the structure,” she added. “And there’s so much attention to detail.”

“The tiles in the mihrab” – the niche indicating the direction of Mecca – “are replicas of tiles in other landmark mosques in Istanbul. The doors have been made with a technique that doesn’t use any nails or screws, so only a few people still know how to do this.”

Though the centre is being formally inaugurated by president Erdogan, it has already been open for a year. During this time, Mr Aydilek believes it has met its objective of being a space for people of different faiths and cultures.

“During Friday prayers, I think only 10 per cent of our worshippers are Turkish. The remaining are from different countries, so services are now in English,” he said. “Our social hall has held a lot of Indian and Pakistani weddings. Our auditorium is widely used by our neighbours here, Muslims as well as non-Muslims.”

“We’ve conducted at least 350 tours in the last six months, for high school and university students, groups of diplomats, and interfaith groups,” he said. “All this adds flavour to our community.”

Despite this, the Diyanet Centre has been the focus of some opposition from right-wing media outlets. One right-wing anti-Islam website called it a “symbol of Islamic supremacy” and a “mosquetrosity”. Another, belonging to the Clarion Project, which claims to challenge “Islamist extremism”, has called the mosque “the next step in Erdogan’s desire to increase the Islamist influence in America”.

The rhetoric echoes that of Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Both men have been accused of fearmongering, and of making anti-Muslim statements.

Mr Trump has repeatedly said that, if elected, he will stop Muslims from coming into the US. And after last month’s terror attack in Brussels, Mr Cruz suggested that Muslim neighbourhoods in the US needed to be more heavily policed.

Mr Aydilek said these comments were “political statements, made in an election cycle. So we need to be careful about interpreting them”.

But, he added, such rhetoric threatens to divide the nation at a time when it needs unity. “It causes a dangerous atmosphere, and it could trigger hate crimes.

“I’d like to remind our elected officials that they represent all Americans, not one community or another,” he said. “Muslims serve in the army, we practise as doctors and provide health care, we work as law enforcement officers and firefighters.

“American Muslims are a part of the fabric of the country and they love their country ... In that spirit, the Diyanet Center was built to welcome all communities, and all Americans.”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae