One of the most intense debates taking place in Estonia today is over the proposal to build a mosque in Tallinn to serve the country's Islamic community. Though plans for such a project have been discussed at various levels over the past few years, they've never gotten beyond the talking stages. However, a proposal by a prominent member of the local Azeri community to build the largest mosque in all of the Nordic area has commanded enough interest among the public to match the project's ambition.
In many ways, the debate on this topic symbolises where Estonia is just ten short years since the restoration of independence. Currently, there are an estimated 10,000 Muslims in Estonia, mostly Tatars and Azeris that moved to Estonia during the Soviet period (though before the Soviet occupation, there were also Islamic communities in Narva and Tallinn).
With the passing of a decade, the old question of Estonians and Russians is quickly fading away and is being replaced by much more difficult issues related to Estonia's integration into a modern and more complex Europe. This is the beginning of a series of articles taking an in-depth look at issues of ethnicity in a changing Estonia. Subsequent instalments will focus on the integration of the Russian population, the future definition of who is "Estonian," the future of the Estonian language and, finally, a controversial look at how Estonia will need to deal with the inevitable "multiculturalism" of modern Europe.
Immigration to Europe, including the Nordic region, by people from Islamic nations such as Pakistan and Lebanon is a continuing trend. Following that trend, Estonia, experiencing growing prosperity and European integration via EU membership, will begin to see further immigration in the near future, including from Islamic countries. There is little reason not to believe that the ethnic composition of Tallinn will resemble that of Helsinki or even Copenhagen more and more in the next decade, making the issue of building a mosque that much more topical.
Though most of the discussions about religion in Estonia focus on Lutheranism or Orthodoxy, a significant part of the population has links to Islam. Half of the 10,000 Muslims in Estonia—which is more than the total number of Roman Catholics and Baptists, according to a report by the Estonian Institute (February 1997)—are located in Tallinn.
The issue is rarely covered in the mainstream press, because most of Estonia's Muslims are from the Russian-speaking community; similarly, the issue is also rarely covered in the Russian-language press, because most of Estonia's Russian speakers are Orthodox.
Thus, when the project to build the largest mosque in the Nordic area came up in the press in early January, it sparked significant attention—and, generally, a sense of surprise. The debate was fuelled by the the country's fascination with the Internet, and in such a wired country, public participation makes an immediate impact on the media. For example, the daily Eesti Päevaleht conducted an unscientific poll on its Website on the morning of 9 January. By noon, nearly 60 per cent of respondents had voted against the project; only 30 per cent of respondents agreed with the idea of building a mosque in Tallinn. Though unscientific, the poll does give a quick idea of what the public may be thinking.
The entire debate surrounding the potential mosque is a good example of how Estonia fits into 21st century Europe. There are people that understand the challenges of an Estonia in that modern Europe, and there are those that do not. For example, Parliament member and Tallinn City Councillor Liina Tõnisson of the Centre Party told Eesti Päevaleht:
We have no reason to hinder the building of a mosque, but Estonia is a country with European culture, and Islamic belief does not really belong here... I hope that for the building of the mosque the city provides land in a less significant location
Nevertheless, being more farsighted, the city of Tallinn is looking into the project, both with respect to its feasibility and possible location, and is weighing the possible tourism and investment-generating value of the project as well. "Such a building would diversify our city's panorama and would also make the city more attractive to tourists," said Mayor Jüri Mõis to the Raepress official city bulletin.
The Pirita region in Tallinn is the most talked about location for the proposed project, and its initiator, Habib Gulijev, has talked about having "a good view of the sea." The city government is waiting for the City Council to study the specifics.
A dollar per Azeri
Habib Gulijev, a successful businessman (importing pomegranate juice from Azerbaijan to Estonia) and prominent member of the Estonian Azeri community, is the brainchild behind the project. However, the idea is full of improbable components, at times bordering on the farcical. "Everything depends on location," Gulijev told Eesti Päevaleht, "If we get a piece of land to build with a good view of the sea, the size of the donations can be some USD 100 million."
Gulijev has suggested that he received the funding guarantees at a gathering of the world Azeri congress in Paris last October. According to Gulijev, the project's cost is estimated at about USD 40 million and its likely period of completion at two to three years.
Despite the soundness of the general idea of building a mosque, the grandiose nature of the specifics laid out by the ambitious and go-it-alone Gulijev has alienated many people in the Azeri community and other Islam communities in Estonia. One leader of the Azeri community, Nijzi Gadzijev, expressed concern about the unrealistic donation projection given by Gulijev:
I don't believe that anyone will give us USD 40 million... He is a private person, who does not speak in the name of the community here... I do not like when someone does personal promotion in the name of the community.
The leader of the Islamic congregation in Estonia, Timur Seifullen, harshly criticised the Gulijev plan, pointing out that in the Islamic world there are no "naive sponsors." Seifullen explained incredulously to Eesti Päevaleht, "Gulijev's idea is based on the idea that there are 50 million Azeris in the world; thereby, if each would give just one dollar, it would not be difficult to collect even 50 million dollars." Gulijev responded by claiming Seifullen's opposition was incomprehensible.
However, the complexity of building a mosque is not restricted to the overzealous ambitions of one pomegranate juice importer. How would the Islamic communities themselves be reconciled with the project? If this specific project were carried through, would this cause any problems between the smaller Azeri community and the larger Tatar community? What about the split between the Shi'a and Sunni branches of Islam? Both sides have proposed different projects, but the Shi'ites make up the majority of Islamic followers in Estonia.
And, if the project is realised, will Estonia become a beacon or magnet for Islamic tourists or even immigrants? How would people in Estonia react to the immigration of non-Europeans to Estonia? There are a small number of people of non-European origin in Estonia right now, and, for the most part, they face little direct discrimination (though there are isolated cases, this author did not face any incidents over the many years he spent in Estonia).
Would a rapid expansion of their numbers change the remarkably tolerant nature of the Estonian population? Most of the aforementioned people are students, teachers and businessmen, and most speak English (a smaller number speak Russian or even Finnish, though a significant number have learned Estonian exclusively).
But with growing prosperity, Estonia is likely to face more significant immigration from a different group—refugees fleeing persecution or poverty. The profile—though not the skin colour—changes drastically in such cases; for example, those fleeing a war in Sub-Saharan Africa are often not English-speaking.
If Estonia, which includes both state and society, is not ready for the eventual consequences of joining the club of more prosperous European countries, it will face some of the worst complications faced by other countries in similar situations. Just take the case of Finland and the recent disturbances between local and Somali youths in the Helsinki suburb of Vantaa. For the most part, Finland is more prepared than Estonia to deal with such immigration.
Estonia has changed much in the ten years since the restoration of its independence from Moscow. Few dreamed that the country could have changed so much and be so close to fully rejoining European political, economic and security structures so soon. Although Estonia has another integration issue to worry about at the moment—that of its Russian-speaking population—there is remarkably little discussion about the future expected wave of immigration.
Mel Huang, 22 January 2001
- Archived articles about Estonian society in CER
- Archive of Mel Huang's articles in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Estonia through CER
- Return to CER front page