Latin America's First Mega-Mosque Opens Eyes To Islam
By Chris Moss
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Islam Online) - Residents of Palermo,
middle-class district in Buenos Aires, are used to seeing their
change. New high-rise apartment towers, enormous shopping malls,
stations and U.S.-style fast food outlets are constantly erupting
the parks and plazas that represent an older, more leisurely
But now a different kind of building has appeared right in the
this traditional neighborhood, occupying an eight-acre triangle
the Jumbo superstore and the Le Parc tower where soccer star
Maradona and other assorted celebrities keep apartments. If at
looked like just another construction site, there was soon little
that the vast enterprise, with its minarets, window screens,
patios and 50 meter-high ceramic white dome was something special.
But Buenos Aires wasn't getting some quirky theme mall or
center; it was witnessing the arrival of the biggest mosque in
America, a Saudi Arabian project with the personal backing of
Passengers on the commuter trains passing close by stare out
the size and strangeness of the building, which is only now emerging
the piles of sand and cement and scaffolding rigs. In fact, the
owned by the state railways, until ex-President Carlos Menem
hand it over to the Saudi Arabian Islamic Affairs Department.
In a city in which every square meter of wasteland not bought
residential use quickly becomes a business location, the appearance
mosque is something of an event. That the land is in a prime
area can be taken as a signal from King Fahd and the Muslim community
Islam wants a high profile even in countries where the vast majority
the population is Roman Catholics and who view Islam as something
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,
land, valued at $10 million, was donated by the Argentine government.
the Islamic Center covers an area that would allow the construction
four or five tower blocks, the actual value of the donation could
As well as the main mosque, which has a capacity for 1,000
complex will boast school buildings, art galleries, dormitories,
cultural center, a sports field and a caf, as well as apartments
imams and its own underground car park.
Though there is already a mosque in the capital, as well as
Islamic institutions in the interior, the King Fahd Center is
event for Argentine Muslims. Estimates put the community at some
most of whom are descendants of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants
who came to
Argentina from 1850 onwards. Anibal Bachir, secretary-general
Argentine Islamic Community, is optimistic about the new venture.
are, after all, the third largest community in Argentina after
and Spaniards, and we hope the Fahd Center will be a cultural
place, a nexus between Islam and other beliefs. It may help to
certain errors about women, The Qur'an and other principles of
counter those sometimes propagated by the media, who tend to
Some neighbors have objected to having a mosque in their backyard
aesthetic reasons, but the architect Carranza, who has had to
terms and techniques of Middle Eastern architecture, with its
(pulpits), qiblas (prayer direction) and masjids (mosques), claims,
Buenos Aires you can build anything. All kinds of styles already
side-by-side because of past immigration and as for those who
another green space, beside the fact that they already have so
can rest assured that the Fahd Center, which is open to the public,
give them far more space and light than a residential tower block."
At the present time, the site is hectic as 400 builders work
clock, with daytime temperatures in the mid-thirties. There is
plastering and painting to do, the palm trees need planting and
fountains plumbing in, while the ornaments and a Moroccan carpet
mosque are due to arrive any day now.
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
and the traffic problems the mosque will create in an already
area, there have been more serious criticisms on religious, political
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
Arab and pro-Muslim causes; Menem is often referred to as "el
Turk), a nickname widely-used in Argentina for anyone with Middle
family connections. Meanwhile, some Christians have voiced their
complaints at the Saudi government's unwillingness to let other
build temples and centers on its homeland and have also taken
Argentine authorities to task for failing to support other creeds
cash or land.
Since the bombings of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the
Argentine-Israeli cultural association in 1994, which together
lives and remain unsolved in the Argentine courts, there has
considerable anti-Arab feeling among Argentines, who until the
saw themselves as safely outside the centers of world terrorism.
Argentine Jewish population and many non-Jews feel that the previous
government failed to bring the terrorists to justice because
police are implicated in the affair. Most of the suspicion has
directed at Iran or Iran-backed groups, but Menem's Syrian ancestry
well as the involvement of several Arabs in corruption and even
scandals has led to a fogging of issues.
Leaders of other religions see the project as a positive step
nominally Catholic but in fact increasingly secularized society
Christians have expressed their hope that the incoming imams
pluralist and moderate. Argentina has already seen a weakening
of the old
church-state relationship and a law passed in 1994 now allows
Argentine president to be a non-Catholic (Menem himself had to
confirmed into the Roman Catholic Church to take office).
In spite of the various dissenting voices and the general
the Islamic faith, Muslims are optimistic about the mosque's
for the future of Islam in South America. Jaffar Ali, who maintains
page for Spanish-speaking Muslims, sees Buenos Aires as an ideal
for spreading a positive, unbiased image of Islam. "People
here have an
opportunity to see the Islamic world with particular objectivity.
many countries were affected by colonization and decolonization
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
between Islam and Latin America."
From Islam Online