Building the world's tallest minaret

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Architect's drawing of the Great Mosque of AlgiersImage source, KSP Jurgen Engel Architekten

A vast mosque designed to rival the world's greatest Muslim places of worship is being built on Algeria's northern coast. What's behind such an ambitious undertaking?

Halfway along the gentle curve of the Bay of Algiers, a sprawling complex of buildings is slowly rising from the ground.

At one end will be the domed prayer room of the Great Mosque of Algiers. At the other, the world's tallest minaret will tower 265m (870ft) into the sky. There will be a koranic school, a library and a museum, and terraces and gardens scattered with fruit trees.

Visitors will arrive by car, tram, and even by boat. The complex, with space for 120,000 people, will be connected to a marina on the Mediterranean by two panoramic walkways.

The mosque will be the world's third biggest by area, according to the architects, and the largest in Africa.

"It's one of the projects of the century," said Ouarda Youcef Khodja, a senior official at the ministry of housing and urban planning, during a visit to the construction site.

She said that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika wanted the mosque as a "monument to Islam and to the martyrs of the Algerian revolution" - the war of independence from France. But it is also meant to be a signal for the future. "This monument will be a point of reference for the current revolution - the revolution of the development of Algeria."

Like other major schemes funded with Algeria's oil wealth, the construction of the mosque depends on foreign expertise and labour. It was designed with the help of German architects and is being built by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation, which has hundreds of workers living on site in prefabricated housing.

And like other projects it has suffered delays. The ministry of housing and urban planning recently took over responsibility for the project from the ministry of religious affairs. "God willing", says Ms Youcef Khodja, it will now be finished by the end of 2016, though even that would be more than a year behind schedule.

Image caption,
Construction has been delayed, with about 30% now completed
Image caption,
The mosque is being built by Chinese workers

The mosque's scale, its location, and its price tag - estimated at $1-1.5bn (£1bn) - show that it is a priority for the government.

One reason for this can be found in Mr Bouteflika's backing for a project that will serve as a memorial to his presidency.

Another can be found in Algeria's often bitter rivalry with its neighbour, Morocco. The Algiers mosque will slightly surpass the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca both in its overall size and in the height of its minaret.

But a deeper motivation may lie in the government's ongoing attempt to forge a national religious identity and to harness Islam by asserting control over mosques and the imams who preach in them.

That effort that began with independence in 1962 and gained urgency with the civil conflict and Islamist insurgency of the 1990s, when the state had lost control of some mosques to clerics who fomented opposition to the regime.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Existing mosques - including an older Great Mosque near the harbour in Algiers - are much smaller in scale

It is in this context that Algeria is building a massive, modern mosque - something it has lacked up until now - says Kamel Chachoua, an Algerian expert on religion at the Institute of Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim World in Marseille.

The decision to construct it was "a means to cut ground from under the feet of the Islamists. It's the idea of creating a national Islam after the terror of 1990s gave [Islam] an unhinged image, and of making it closer to the state and of combating fundamentalism."

The mosque is meant to be a potent symbol in a part of Algiers that saw lots of extremism in the 1990s, he adds.

"It's a way of hiding the little mosques and marginalising them. It's a way of saying: 'We love Islam, but a modern version of Islam'.

"You can construct 1,000 little mosques but that's not visible - it doesn't show that the state is in the process of asserting its domination over Islam, and that it is proud of Islam."

Image source, KSP Jürgen Engel Architekten

The idea of encouraging a national, loyal version of Islam that excludes radical ideologies imported from the Gulf or elsewhere can be seen in the government's effort to promote and co-opt Sufi zawaya, or religious orders. It is also reflected in the new mosque's distinctively North African architecture, with a single, square minaret.

The minaret will tower over the district of Mohammedia, and over traces of Algeria's colonial past. Directly behind the construction site is a large building that used to house missionary priests from France known as peres blancs, or white fathers. Just down the road is the site of a former wine factory.

The mosque is designed to be a symbol of Algeria's new identity, but that identity is still contested.

Some critics see the mosque more as a symbol of post-conflict compromise with political Islam than as a way to counter extremism.

"The priority is to say: 'Look how we're a Muslim country," says Amira Bouraoui, a member of the opposition movement Barakat. "It's another way to keep the Islamists quiet and butter them up."

Ms Bouraoui was recently threatened on Facebook after she asked in a post whether the volume of mosque loudspeakers could be lowered.

More secular-minded Algerians saw this as one of a series of examples of creeping Islamification and religious intolerance.

Other recent cases including an appeal by a Salafist activist for the writer Kamel Daoud to be condemned to death, and protests over the depiction of Algerian revolutionaries drinking alcohol in a French-made film.

More generally however, if Algerians seem to have turned more observant, that is largely superficial, says Nacer Djabi, a sociologist at the university of Algiers.

"At a social level I don't think Algerians have become very religious," he says.

"They've become very conservative, with a cosmetic, societal religiosity. You can see it in the streets of Algiers - there are lots of girls with the headscarf, but that doesn't prevent them from having boyfriends, from drinking beer.

"Lots of Algerians, businessmen above all, go to Mecca, pray five times a day," he adds. "But that doesn't affect their behaviour as citizens, as Muslims."

For their part the residents of Mohammedia seem unimpressed by the huge mosque being built on their doorstep, suggesting the money could be better spent elsewhere.

"You need to start with education and health, and then you can think about glorifying religion," says Racim, a 22-year-old student.

"From a Muslim point of view the place of worship doesn't matter so much - it's what is in the heart."