It was open only 14 days before the town council shut down Venice’s first and only mosque in modern times. The reason was that people were actually praying there, while the authorities had not authorised a real mosque, just a work of art by the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel entitled The Mosque. In other words, it was okay for the Icelanders, whose “pavilion” this was for the Biennale, to make something that pretended to be a mosque, where people might pretend to pray, but if they actually addressed the Almighty, they might become a threat to public order: Islamist terrorists might come and take root, or xenophobes of the separatist Lega Nord (Northern League) might harass the Muslims. When in doubt invoke health and safety regulations because the building was repeatedly fuller than the maximum number allowed, according to the police, so shut it down was the bureaucrats’ reaction.
But it is worse to have something that has been given to you snatched away than never to have had it at all. There are 15,000-20,000 Muslims in the Veneto region and dozens of them were at the opening of Büchel’s mosque on 8 May. One Moroccan, who told me that he had been in Italy for 20 years and had Italian citizenship, said how happy he was that Venice finally had a mosque, even though there are ones on the mainland. The moment we entered the space (and we were told to take our shoes off) they began to pray and that subtle transformation of atmosphere from secular to religious took place, whether you were in sympathy with it or not.
In a courteous speech at the opening, in perfect Italian, Mohamed Amin Al Ahdab, architect and president of the Islamic Community of Venice, thanked the magic of art for having “warmed the hearts of Muslims” and given them a mosque and expressed the hope that it would lead to their getting a permanent one after the biennale closed on 22 November.
The mosque has been created in the former church of the Sta Maria della Misericordia, in private hands since 1969 and used as a store, among other profane purposes. Now it has the mihrab and minbar, the inscriptions from the Koran, the LED display of the times of prayer and the carpet with prayer niches.
“The Icelanders have shone a light on the problem of the demographic changes here,” said Al Ahdab, “they have dusted off this jewel and made it a living place. It was once a church, it is now a mosque, but once again a place to pray to the same God that He may grant us peace.”
Amen to that, we all say. But was this an appropriate project for a work of art? Büchel specialises in performance works involving real people, as when he turned Hauser & Wirth’s Piccadilly space temporarily into a centre for the underdogs of society in 2011. There one wonders how the homeless felt the day they turned up and found it had metamorphosed back into a swanky gallery.
That already makes me feel uneasy, but The Mosque makes me angry. Under the guise of doing something radical for art and something improving for the community, Büchel, who was unavailable for comment, has hitched his wagon to something much more powerful and serious than art, with the wholly predictable risk that it might make the situation worse for Muslims and, indeed, all of us. That risk has now become reality.
The project has provoked the xenophobes and ignorant into making hurtful statements; the authorities have come across as hostile and the faithful no longer have their place of prayer. We can count on this episode being tweeted and Facebooked all over the Muslim world and the offence will be amplified immeasurably, adding to the general paranoia.
It will be difficult to make amends. Let us at least hope that the new mayor will be the anti-corruption magistrate Felice Casson, who when he heard of The Mosque the day it opened said that people could pray in St Mark’s Square so far as he was concerned.
If anyone will find a building to replace this pseudo-mosque that insisted on being a mosque, it will