Mirage: Why Helsinki’s ‘Grand Mosque’ Disappeared

Concerns about foreign funding, sustainability and how divisive the mosque would be, sunk developers' plans.

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A rendering of the space a Grand Mosque complex could occupy in Helsinki's Sörnäinen district / Credit: Handout

Plans by Muslim developers to build a Grand Mosque complex in Helsinki never really gained any support from local government due to fears about Middle Eastern funding for the estimated €140m project; and concerns about how divisive it would be for Finnish Muslims.

The proposal was supposed to be discussed at a Helsinki City Board meeting later today; but after a unanimous decision last week by the city’s Urban Environment Board to reject a bid for land at Sörnäinen, developers pulled the project from consideration.

For now at least, the idea of a Grand Mosque in Helsinki is dead in the water.

Grand Mosque Plans

The project was ambitious at the outset.

While Muslim worshipers in the Finnish capital currently meet in small facilities like the prayer room on the second floor of an anonymous office building in Kontula, the Grand Mosque was conceived as a major new Muslim landmark in Helsinki.

On the ‘wish list’ of developer Pia Jardi was a mosque with minaret, accommodation, a school, cultural centre and swimming pool – all occupying a space larger than Hakaniemi Market Square.

“I don’t think this has anything to do in reality about building a mosque. Actually all this is about finance” Jardi tells News Now Finland.

The money would have been provided by crowdfunding donations through Bahrain’s Islamic Foundation, a religious and social organisation set up in the late 1970s.

“They will open an account and ask for money from different places, it’s like Kickstarter. They have so many connections to different countries and possible financiers” explains Jardi.

She insists that the money would come without strings, and that potential backers would be told they had no say in how the Grand Mosque would be built nor run.

But Helsinki City Councillors who sit on the Urban Environment Board had concerns about the money, and lack of financial self-sustainability going forward.

“I think the most important concern we had was a lack of a credible funding plan. The funding of the Grand Mosque, for €140m, was non-existant” says Atte Kaleva, a National Coalition Party member of Helsinki City Council.

“After that they didn’t produce with any credibility to say that it would be sustainable at some point, the mosque and the cultural centre. They relied on the yearly funding for just running the place, and it would all come from the same source in Bahrain. That is not very credible in the long run” says Kaleva.

Kaleva explains that he felt there was a disconnect between the project developers saying they would be 100% reliant on foreign funding, and yet claiming those same backers wouldn’t have a say for example in who the imam was, or who served on the Grand Mosque’s governing board.

“If you are financially dependent, sooner or later you will become ideologically dependent” says Kaleva.

Bahrain Explained

In the world of Middle Eastern politics, Bahrain lies at a crossroads between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiia Iran.

Although the small island Kingdom has a majority Shiia population, the ruling class is Sunni.

A pro-democracy movement in 2011, which brought hundreds of thousands of Bahraini Shiia to the streets to demand the right to free and fair elections in the so-called ‘Pearl Revolution’, was brutally put down when Bahrain’s rulers invited troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to quel the protests.

The Bahraini government was accused of widespread human rights abuses as athletes and medical staff claimed they were tortured for being part of the pro-democracy movement, or for treating protesters injured in clashes with police.

Opposition activists and human rights campaigners were jailed. Bahrain’s ties to Saudi Arabia – the two nations are physically joined by a 16km causeway – were cemented. The Pearl Revolution was crushed.

“Sooner or later you would be having fundamentalist imams, this is inevitable if we let the Saudis, via Bahrain, fund this huge mosque. We would be inviting that Sunni Shiia conflict into Finland” says Atte Kaleva.

Kaleva’s claims might seem oddly out of step with his role as first term politician on Helsinki City Council. But the 34-year-old knows a thing or two about the topic, as a noted expert on jihadi causes and radical Islam. He speaks Arabic, and spent extensive time in the Middle East. In 2012, Kalev and his wife along with an Austrian national were kidnapped by extremists in Yemen, and held hostage for six months before being released through Oman – a country that has often played a role in brokering regional hostage releases.

Kalev says he fielded numerous calls from Finnish Muslims to stop the Grand Mosque project, on the grounds of how divisive it would be locally. A Sunni mosque funded by Bahrain or Saudi Arabia wouldn’t serve the region’s Shiia communities at all.

Pia Jardi says that although Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are “close”, the Saudis are not involved in the Grand Mosque project – but concedes that crowdfunded donations could come from Saudi donors.

“The King [of Bahrain] supported the issue, but we are not saying the Bahrain government will pay” she says.

Places To Pray

In the last week, members of Helsinki City Council have said in public that they agree there is a need for Muslims to have better places of worship in the capital region.

“We wanted to make sure that Helsinki wouldn’t be anti-Msulim or xenophobic” says Kaleva.

Pia Jardi says that Muslims in Finland don’t have the financial clout to raise money on their own to build mosques that better suit the needs of the communities here.

“As Finnish Muslims, we need to be able to take care of our mosques and issues here in Finland. But the fact is that we have not got financiers from Finland. Not even the Finnish Muslim community” says Pia Jardi.

“I have been saying it so many times, if the Finnish Muslim community tries to finance this, it will be ten years and they will be able to collect a couple of million. We are Sunnis, and we are not going to take a loan from the bank and pay interest. We don’t do that” she says.

One possible solution could be found among Finland’s oldest Muslim community, the Tatars, who have been part of the fabric of Finnish society since the 1870s. Finland was the first European country officially recognise a Muslim congregation, in 1925.

In Helsinki, the Tatar community raised some money themselves, took a bank loan, and bought a building in the city centre for their mosque or prayer room; a cultural centre; and office space that they lease out to commercial clients.

A cross-party delegation from Helsinki City Council recently visited the Tatar centre to see the operating model in action, and this is the sort of self-funding sustainability that Atte Kalev believes Sunni or Shiia Muslim groups in Helsinki could emulate.

Looking Ahead

Despite the objections of the Urban Environment Committee, and the decision to withdraw the project from consideration by the City Board, Pia Jardi believes there is still potential to move forward with a Grand Mosque plan in the region, perhaps in Espoo or Vantaa, although developers are likely to face similar questions on funding.

“I am tough. And I am a Finn. First of all I am a Muslim and I believe in Islam. I believe whatever is meant, it will happen. I believe in destiny” she says.

“I don’t get depressed about this kind of issues, because I do understand that we are not supposed to be impatient. Whatever it takes, it will take”