People in Bucharest protest construction of a Turkish mosque.

Photographer: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images

Race to Build Mosques Is a Waste of Money

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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For most of the last thousand years, building mosques was a way of consolidating an Islamic empire’s prestige and spreading its beliefs. In recent decades, Saudi Arabia has been the leading global mosque builder, erecting sanctuaries and paying imams to spread its Wahhabi brand of fundamentalist state religion.

Now Turkey and Iran have entered the mosque race, sponsoring new structures in their distinctive architectural styles. But they’re late to the game, at least if the score is tallied by discouraging disfavored ideology and spreading their own religious and political views.

A new generation of Muslims learns its ideology online, not from mosque imams. For these young people, state sponsorship isn’t the marker of authenticity and authority that their parents appreciated. Instead, it’s a symbol of hypocrisy.

A generation ago, a state-sponsored mosque strengthened the tradition of acknowledging the authority of the ruler from the pulpit in the Friday sermon. Saudi Arabia welcomed this association when its star was ascendant among international Muslims from the 1970s through the 1990s.

There were unintended consequences, however, to the export of Wahhabism, which teaches a strict interpretation of Islam. Wahhabi preachers ordinarily don’t call for violent jihad unless a duly constituted political authority sanctions it. Even in that rare case, the call would take the form of an appeal to the ruler to take action, not a declaration of open season against kings and presidents.

QuickTake Jihad

Under the influence of Islamic reformists, some Muslims in the late 20th century began to believe that they should act on their own to make jihad. The Saudis, for their part, always feared such freelance jihad as dangerous and ungovernable. Osama bin Laden, the very model of a self-appointed jihadi, challenged the Saudi religious authorities before setting out to undermine the regime by attacking the U.S.

Turkey and Iran would like to avoid Saudi Arabia’s missteps while simultaneously raising their international influence and prestige. For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the idea is to recall the glories of the Ottoman Empire, the largest and, by a great measure, longest-lived Sunni empire in history. Implicit in this objective, beyond some vainglory, is a move to supplant the Saudis as the indispensable Sunni Muslim state. That would also involve teaching more moderate ideas than the Wahhabis.

Iran wants to combat Saudi influence with the goal of minimizing the Sunni-Shiite conflict that is detrimental to its regional interests. It wants Muslims and non-Muslims alike to see Shiism as a valid form of Islam, not a sect to be condemned as heresy, as some radical Sunnis have over the last 15 years.

These goals aren’t unreasonable -- but the technique of mosque-building is now an archaic, even obsolete, way to accomplish them. Radicalization and the spread of Islamic religious ideas increasingly takes place outside mosques.

Several of the Sept. 11 attackers were radicalized in small, private groups, including Mohamed Atta in Germany. Since the 1990s, the rise of the Internet and social media has made even face-to-face meetings increasingly unnecessary.

There was something almost poignant about initial news media efforts to determine where the attackers in San Bernardino, California, were radicalized, and whether the wife, Tashfin Malik, who was Pakistani-born and Saudi-raised, had radicalized her U.S.-born husband, Syed Rizwan Farook. Both could have been, and probably were, radicalized on the Internet, where Anwar al-Awlaki, killed by a drone strike, lives on through his sermons and addresses. Their neighbor Enrique Marquez became their co-conspirator, federal agents say, through individual contact with the couple -- far from the mosque.

It’s no coincidence that mosques aren’t the primary venue for contemporary radicalization. A state-sponsored mosque, whether at home or abroad, is tied to the state. And contemporary jihadi terrorism is by and large planned and carried out by nonstate actors.

Islamic State may well hope to change that by combining the al-Qaeda pattern of training and inspiring small cells with the control of territory. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-described caliph of Islamic State, is the only state “ruler” in the world who openly calls for spontaneous terrorist attacks to be made in his name and that of his state.

Of course, Islamic State isn’t exactly a state, at least not yet. And it hasn’t been subjected to the same tools of international pressure that typically keep states from sponsoring terrorism, at least not unless they can do it deniably.

Turkey and Iran may build some nice-looking buildings. But if they want to influence the flow of Islamic ideas, they’ll have to keep up with the times -- and with changing technologies of faith.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net