Mosque Installed at Venice Biennale Tests City’s Tolerance

Randy Kennedy in The New York Times:

VeniceVENICE — The 18th-century novelist William Beckford wrote that he couldn’t help thinking of this city’s most beloved sight, St. Mark’s Basilica, as a mosque, with its “pinnacles and semicircular arches” all “so oriental in appearance.” But despite the profound stamp that Islamic culture has left on Venice’s art and architecture over centuries, it remains one of the few prominent European cities without a mosque near its historic center, leaving Islamic residents who work there to pray in storerooms and shops amid the tourist crush. For the next seven months, however, Venice will find itself in the middle of the roiling debate about Islam’s place in Europe. On Friday, as part of the Venice Biennale, a former Catholic church in the Cannaregio neighborhood will open its doors as a functioning mosque, its Baroque walls adorned with Arabic script, its floor covered with a prayer rug angled toward Mecca and its crucifix mosaics hidden behind a towering mihrab, or prayer niche.

The transformation is the work of a Swiss-Icelandic artist, Christoph Büchel, who has become known for politically barbed provocations. But the mosque, which will serve as Iceland’s national pavilion during the Biennale, is a cultural symbol and a kind of ready-made sculpture conceived with the active involvement of leaders of the area’s Islamic population, which has been growing for many years. Against a backdrop of rising Islamophobia in Italy and fears, like those at full throttle in France, of terrorism committed in the name of Islam, Muslim leaders in Venice said they saw the proposal to create a temporary mosque in the international spotlight of the Biennale as a perfect way to communicate their desire to more fully participate in the life of their city. “Sometimes you need to show yourself, to show that you are peaceful and that you want people to see your culture,” said Mohamed Amin Al Ahdab, president of the Islamic Community of Venice, which represents Muslims of about 30 nationalities living in greater Venice.

More here.