Identity-as-form: the mosque in the west (1).

Author:Avcioglu, Nebahat


This article is a reconsideration of the ethical conceptual framework developed by Edward Said in his book Orientalism within an art historical context. It focuses primarily on the relationship between form and cultural identity in the architecture of contemporary mosques in Europe and North America to discuss key theoretical issues and current methodological tendencies in cross-cultural art history. The aim is to explore the highly charged topic of contemporary mosque architecture and minority cultural identity through the prism of what I call the Saidian turn. The article concludes by suggesting that one of the virtues of the Saidian turn is to contextualize 'otherness' not as a cultural dead-end burdened by an over-determining sense of identity but as an opportunity to participate in a material and open-ended becoming.

Something in me mistrusts "identity." Orhan Pamuk, 1998, 489 "So, are you designing minarets?" In the early nineties while practicing architecture in London I often heard people ask me this question after telling them that I was Turkish. At first I did not know how to take this joke, though I assumed it was a joke since it was followed by a smile. The frequency of the question was enough to reveal an underlying discursive structure whose principle has been described by Edward Said as an ideological construction of culture as a source of identity geared to "differentiate 'us' from 'them,' almost always with some degree of xenophobia." (Said 1994, xiii). This ideological construct rests on a syllogistic intellectual and moral deduction based on an essentialist chain of signifiers, whereby minarets are seen as a common denominator of Turkish culture as well as of Islam; and, in turn, a Turkish architect is seen as the correlative bearer of that form wherever she or he may be in the world. Apart from the baffling degree of arrogance and blindness to other histories that this narrative reveals, what is explicitly suggested (and reproduced) under a smile in this ahistorical, discriminating, and deterministic portrayal of an individual (architect), a culture (Turkish), as well as a civilization (Islam), is a postmodern Orientalism under the guise of cosmopolitanism. As Said has shown, Orientalism led the West to see Islam, or the East, as static both in time and place, as "eternal, uniform, and incapable of defining itself" (Said 1995, 15). In addition, by this artificial telos, working against today's liberalism, all agency and creativity are also disturbed according to pre-set categories. The contradiction between current tendencies towards architectural open-endedness, abstraction, or internationalism, and the cultural authenticity or ethnic religious identity, subconsciously or consciously implied by the above question deserves a closer scrutiny.

Challenges to alterity, assimilation, or multiculturalism through the "uses" of culture and tradition are not only a symptom of latent Orientalism, they have also become a general phenomenon of identity politics in the face of fragmentation and alienation, nurturing varieties of religious and nationalist fundamentalism worldwide. Critical post-colonial theory has in this respect pointed out many similarities between colonial and post-colonial discourses of identity claims; both are based on a system of ambiguities, contradictions, and separations, aiming at a homogeneous order by marginalizing or alienating one another. Identity, or a sense of existential belonging or subjective determination, is not a coherent path through unproblematic instances, but a contingent and precarious sense of constructions produced by sets of mediations and discourses, "opposed essences," and a "whole adversarial knowledge built out of those things" (Said 1995, 352; Said 1994, 60). In this article my aim is to both historicize and contextualize Said's claim that Orientalism is the blind spot of identity politics through a reading and interpretation of metropolitan architectural culture, and in particular, of the purpose-built mosques in Europe and North America since the late nineteenth century.

Since the emergence of post-colonial states, mosques funded mostly by petrodollars present us with a visual discourse of an unprecedented kind that strives towards a formulaic objectivity or sameness, particularly, but not exclusively, in the West.. This discourse, as I will show, invents along the way traditions and even an architectural ontology of sorts in which minarets have a particularly enduring appeal. My study focuses on this uneasy gesture of negotiating Muslim identity within a poor repertoire of forms. It contends that identity politics is a predicament that leads to not less, but more strict methods of self-definitions based on even lesser signs and categories of distinctions. As I shall argue, more than a mere signifier,, the minaret, together with the dome, has become a structural metonym of Muslim identity that can no longer be read in any other context than the one it predetermines, even though there exist in the Muslim countries both old and new mosques without minarets and domes. Hence the relevance of the question posed by my British acquaintances on this topic, since it is a product of a tendency to deny distinctions and foreclose alterity,, or even hybridity,, by reducing cultures (Turkish or/and Islamic) to the homogeneous stance of a visible sign such as a minaret. Such a regime of referential singularity not only sustains the category of identity as a logical boundary between 'us' and 'them' but also reconfigures the colonial trope, image-as-identity, into one of post-colonial, identity-as-image.

Highlighting Islam (symbolized by the minaret instead of the mosque itself) both as a cultural and national marker points towards the enduring force of religion, rather religious distinction, in the awkward articulation of national identities both in the East and the West. As the relationship between religion and nationalist politics is being evoked following political reconfigurations and the resurgence of Islamism in the Muslim world, we indeed find ourselves in the midst of intense debates that continue to draw ontological and essentialist distinctions between the West and the East, notably around the questions of secularism (2) as exemplified by recent polemics surrounding the Muslim veil both in France and in Turkey or the worldwide violence caused by the offensive Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. We may ask if Western European identity is being redefined against Islam and not just without it (Huntington 1997). The realm of the purpose-built mosques in Europe and North America since the 1950s, following decolonization, is one among other realms where the religious polemic is taken to its extreme by both sides in forging political identities based on poorly defined notions of Islamic civilization.

The idea that globalism produced vibrant identities in the form of the hybrid is an attractive one (Bhabha 1994). Yet, there is surprisingly little evidence in the architecture of mosques that resists the reproduction of idealized forms and their distribution. Nowhere has this predicament manifested itself more clearly than as in the mosques founded by the Muslim minorities in Europe and North America. In describing a new multinational world order, Gayatri Spivak identifies this tendency as "neo-colonialism,," that is to say,, "a displaced repetition of many of the old lines laid down by colonialism" (Spivak 1989, 269). She continues, "It is in this newer context that the post-colonial diasporic can have the role of an ideologue" unable to negotiate their identity outside the context of a colonial discourse (Spivak 1989, 269-292). An investigation into the genesis of purpose-built mosques in the West provides us with a case study of such displaced notions and uncanny repetitions of colonial styles.

Outside of the imperial context, Western Europe is very new to the experience of multi-religious and multi-cultural existence. The Middle East, on the other hand, as the cradle of all three monotheistic religions, would be unthinkable without the co-existence of synagogues, churches, and mosques however contentious that co-existence might still be. This difference, as we shall see, also effects the appropriation of foreign architectural forms into an indigenous context. Until very recently, according to sociologists, Muslims in Europe were usually perceived as transient immigrants, refugees, or negligible ethnic minorities, rather than as part of communities deserving their own places of worship or cultural institutions. In this sense the Orientalist colonial discourse was a function or byproduct of the distance between the dominant center and the dominated periphery. Thus the early appropriations of cultural forms from the East were based on synoptic views of the history of Islamic architecture From the second half of the eighteenth century onwards, the mosque, with its dome and minaret, was singled out as the stylistic/formal metonym of the Muslim 'other.' It became a leitmotif in what is known as 'exoticism' or turquerie in architecture. Mosque-like buildings,, mostly based on the Turkish model--since the "Turk" itself was a synonym for the Muslim 'other'--transfigured into garden ornaments all over Europe (Figs. 1 and 2) Examples of this transfiguration include the Turkish Mosque at Kew Gardens in London built in 1762, the Mosque at the Schloss Garten in Schwetzingen constructed in 1776, and the Mosque at the Armainvilliers, near Paris, designed in 1785. Needless to say none of these buildings were functional. Although Frederick the Great of Prussia went so far as to think about establishing a working mosque as part of his enlightenment project of religious tolerance, the foundation of such a mosque in Western Europe has its much more humble origins in the late nineteenth century.



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