Latin America’s First Mega-Mosque Opens Eyes To Islam

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Islam Online) – Residents of Palermo, a large middle-class district in Buenos Aires, are used to seeing their skyline
change. New high-rise apartment towers, enormous shopping malls, shiny gas stations and U.S.-style fast food outlets are constantly erupting between the parks and plazas that represent an older, more leisurely city. But now a different kind of building has appeared right in the heart of
this traditional neighborhood, occupying an eight-acre triangle between the Jumbo superstore and the Le Parc tower where soccer star Diego
Maradona and other assorted celebrities keep apartments. If at first it looked like just another construction site, there was soon little doubt
that the vast enterprise, with its minarets, window screens, sun-drenched patios and 50 meter-high ceramic white dome was something special.

But Buenos Aires wasn’t getting some quirky theme mall or amusement center; it was witnessing the arrival of the biggest mosque in Latin
America, a Saudi Arabian project with the personal backing of King Fahd.

Passengers on the commuter trains passing close by stare out bemused by the size and strangeness of the building, which is only now emerging from the piles of sand and cement and scaffolding rigs. In fact, the land was owned by the state railways, until ex-President Carlos Menem agreed to hand it over to the Saudi Arabian Islamic Affairs Department.

In a city in which every square meter of wasteland not bought up for residential use quickly becomes a business location, the appearance of a
mosque is something of an event. That the land is in a prime residential area can be taken as a signal from King Fahd and the Muslim community that Islam wants a high profile even in countries where the vast majority of the population is Roman Catholics and who view Islam as something rather exotic and far removed.

The project, hatched in 1995, was strongly supported by then-President Menem, who stepped down on December 10 last year. While the construction costs, amounting to some $15 million, are being met by King Fahd, the land, valued at $10 million, was donated by the Argentine government. As the Islamic Center covers an area that would allow the construction of four or five tower blocks, the actual value of the donation could be far higher.

As well as the main mosque, which has a capacity for 1,000 faithful, the complex will boast school buildings, art galleries, dormitories, a
cultural center, a sports field and a caf, as well as apartments for two imams and its own underground car park. Though there is already a mosque in the capital, as well as numerous Islamic institutions in the interior, the King Fahd Center is a major event for Argentine Muslims. Estimates put the community at some 700,000, most of whom are descendants of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants who came to Argentina from 1850 onwards. Anibal Bachir, secretary-general of the Argentine Islamic Community, is optimistic about the new venture. “Arabs are, after all, the third largest community in Argentina after Italians and Spaniards, and we hope the Fahd Center will be a cultural meeting place, a nexus between Islam and other beliefs. It may help to correct certain errors about women, The Qur’an and other principles of Islam and counter those sometimes propagated by the media, who tend to highlight the extremists.”

Some neighbors have objected to having a mosque in their backyard for aesthetic reasons, but the architect Carranza, who has had to learn the
terms and techniques of Middle Eastern architecture, with its mihrabs (pulpits), qiblas (prayer direction) and masjids (mosques), claims, “In
Buenos Aires you can build anything. All kinds of styles already live side-by-side because of past immigration and as for those who wanted
another green space, beside the fact that they already have so many, they can rest assured that the Fahd Center, which is open to the public, will
give them far more space and light than a residential tower block.” At the present time, the site is hectic as 400 builders work round the clock, with daytime temperatures in the mid-thirties. There is still plastering and painting to do, the palm trees need planting and the fountains plumbing in, while the ornaments and a Moroccan carpet for the mosque are due to arrive any day now.

Dissenting Voices
Not everyone is happy to see the arrival of the giant mosque in the center of the city. In addition to the complaints about architectural disharmony
and the traffic problems the mosque will create in an already congested area, there have been more serious criticisms on religious, political and
also financial grounds. Though the Congress passed the bill approving the construction of the Fahd Center, many see the projects as a legacy of Menem’s penchant for helping Arab and pro-Muslim causes; Menem is often referred to as “el turco” (theTurk), a nickname widely-used in Argentina for anyone with Middle Eastern family connections. Meanwhile, some Christians have voiced their complaints at the Saudi government’s unwillingness to let other religions build temples and centers on its homeland and have also taken the Argentine authorities to task for failing to support other creeds with cash or land.

Since the bombings of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the AMIA Argentine-Israeli cultural association in 1994, which together claimed 114 lives and remain unsolved in the Argentine courts, there has been considerable anti-Arab feeling among Argentines, who until the tragedies saw hemselves as safely outside the centers of world terrorism. The large Argentine Jewish population and many non-Jews feel that the previous
government failed to bring the terrorists to justice because the local police are implicated in the affair. Most of the suspicion has been directed at Iran or Iran-backed groups, but Menem’s Syrian ancestry as well as the involvement of several Arabs in corruption and even murder scandals has led to a fogging of issues. Leaders of other religions see the project as a positive step for a nominally Catholic but in fact increasingly secularized society and Christians have expressed their hope that the incoming imams will be pluralist and moderate. Argentina has already seen a weakening of the old church-state relationship and a law passed in 1994 now allows the Argentine president to be a non-Catholic (Menem himself had to be
confirmed into the Roman Catholic Church to take office). In spite of the various dissenting voices and the general ignorance about the Islamic faith, Muslims are optimistic about the mosque’s significance for the future of Islam in South America. Jaffar Ali, who maintains a web page for Spanish-speaking Muslims, sees Buenos Aires as an ideal location for spreading a positive, unbiased image of Islam. “People here have an opportunity to see the Islamic world with particular objectivity. Whereas many countries were affected by colonization and decolonization during The last two centuries, Argentina and her neighbors were not. If Islam is for the moment unexplored in this country, the two thin minarets of the new mosque will alert people to its existence and a new bond will be created between Islam and Latin America.”


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