Saturday, December 12, 2009

Swiss vote to ban minarets

Excellent newsletter (dated 04/12/09) from Intelligence Squared, giving arguments both PRO and CON their debating topic: "The Swiss have voted to ban the building of minarets. We should applaud them"


Unlike in most so-called democratic countries, where governments often sweep troublesome issues under the carpet, Switzerland is obliged to call a referendum on any subject if a petition with 100,000 signatures or more demands it. This particular subject attracted a turnout of 53%, so it is not as if the vote was only carried by a small core of fanatics. The issue touched a nerve with feminists and ordinary people concerned for their way of life, not just right-wingers. The result may not have been what the establishment wanted, but that’s the nature of real democracy. When governments are embarrassed by the results of voter participation, we should rejoice.

Europe has a fundamental problem to confront in dealing with its Muslims, and the politicians are going to have to pay attention to it sooner or later. So it’s a good thing the issue is being raised now. The flash points differ country by country: in Switzerland it’s the minaret; in France, the headscarf in school; in Denmark cartoons. But at least in Switzerland the people have confronted the issue and felt able to deal with it, whereas elsewhere the political classes just preach multiculturalism and hope the problem goes away. The French, Dutch or English would doubtless have made a similar decision if only they’d had the chance.

Minarets are a way for Muslims to assert themselves. Their traditional function is to provide a platform and a vantage point for the call to prayer (now made unnecessary by microphones and speakers). They’re often built taller than local church spires for the express purpose of asserting the superiority of Islam. "The minaret, for its opponents, symbolizes Islam’s "arrival" in the Alps," writes the Algerian-American blogger, The Moor Next Door. "It stands to proclaim the Muslim presence above other faiths and peoples." But, quite apart from their symbolic threat, minarets do not fit or blend with the architecture and aesthetics of the country. The Swiss are rightly proud of their idyllic alpine landscape and Baroque spires – immortalised on chocolate boxes everywhere - and if they don’t think minarets fit into that, that is their prerogative. If they don’t want a skyline with more minarets in it – good luck to them.

If Muslims want to be part of a modern Europe, everyone will have to compromise – and that includes Islamic architects. As Taj Hargey argues in The Times, European mosques should stop mindlessly mimicking Eastern design. It would be perfectly easy to create prayer halls that blend into the landscape. Look how the matter has been handled in Boston, says Christopher Hawthorne, the LA Times’s architecture critic. The two-year-old Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Centre combines a row of peaked arches, an Islamic trademark, with New England-style red brick, and was jointly designed by Saudi and American architects. “If that's not an assimilation-minded piece of architecture, I'm not sure what is.” The Swiss are right to demand the same.

Islam has been linked to violence, extremism, freedom of speech, gender discrimination, forced marriage and much more besides. Even if those problems are not essential to the faith, it remains an expansionist religion, and many Muslims are ideologically committed to spreading its laws, values and attitudes more widely. If those values are incompatible with modern Western ones of liberalism and tolerance, then the Swiss are perfectly entitled to make this symbolic gesture of rejection – tolerance cannot survive if it tolerates intolerance. As for the cries of objection from many Muslim countries, how false these sound when those countries themselves ban followers of other religions from building places of worship. The Grand Mufti of Egypt called the ban an "attack on freedom of belief”. That would have been more convincing had he also criticised the difficulty Egyptian Christians face in building churches in his own country, where they must obtain a permit even for basic repairs.


To see the harm that results when issues are continually submitted to plebiscites you just have to look at California. There, the economy is in tatters, as referendum-driven laws make it impossible for it to balance its books. And all too often, the issues giving rise to the call for referenda are linked to some inflammatory incident that encourages stridency and extremism. A big influence in the minaret vote, for example, was the ongoing spat with Libya (Colonel Gaddafi's son was arrested in Geneva for maltreating a servant last year and Libya has been holding a pair of Swiss businessmen over some trivial offence). So an issue that should really have been a matter of human rights law was decided upon by an ill-tempered majority looking for a chance to gang up on an unpopular minority. As The Times put it: not a good case on which to base a referendum.

There are fundamental problems with Islam in Europe – women's unequal status under sharia law, the Saudi sponsorship of Wahhabi mosques and more generally the threats from illiberal strands of Islam to the humanist traditions of Europe – but these have nothing to do with the building of minarets, which is a complete irrelevance. Inappropriate buildings can always be prevented by the planning system, and many minarets are anyway attractive and elegant. Banning minarets is populist window-dressing.

It’s a disgrace that an initiative that singles out a single community, with a clear discriminatory purpose, has been approved. (It is far worse than the French ban on hijabs in schools, which is generalised and also forbids Christian crosses and Jewish yarmulkes.) Minarets are no more a sign of Muslim expansionism than Christian crosses are a sign of the Spanish Inquisition. The minaret ban is just an excuse for bullying Muslims. The right-wing parties behind the ban intially wanted to launch a campaign against Halal slaughter, says Tariq Ramadan in The Guardian, but then realised that this would entail banning Kosher slaughter and upset Swiss Jews – which they wanted to avoid. So they picked minarets as a target instead.

How can the Swiss expect Muslims to assimilate when decisions like this make them feel like second-class citizens? Muslims in Switzerland are generally tolerant and liberal. Many are Kosovans and Bosnians who have been European for centuries, and recently suffered ferocious persecution by the Serbs in the Balkans. Fewer than 13% practise their religion, and there has been no ugly violence in response to the ban – in fact, the violence has mostly come the other way, with a pot of paint hurled at the country's largest mosque in Geneva, which has also been hit with cobblestones. Islam is a European religion, and everyone is going to have to come to terms with that. “We face common challenges, such as unemployment, poverty and violence,” says Ramadan, and we are going to have to face those challenges together. That means tolerating differences, not trying to stamp them out.

The Swiss reputation for tolerance is ill-deserved. The country has a long history of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Historian Jonathan Steinberg points out that Switzerland banned the 8,000 Jews living there from carrying out their traditional ritual slaugher in 1893. The excuse given then was animal welfare – aesthetics provides the same excuse today. Later, Switzerland refused to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Even when Jews began to commit suicide at Swiss border posts, Federal Councillor von Steiger refused them refuge. “The boat is full”, he said. That ugly history of prejudice has now been transferred to the Muslims. The posters encouraging voters to endorse the ban displayed a threatening black-veiled Muslim woman and a forest of missile-like minarets imposed on the pure red and white of the Swiss flag. No one, as The Guardian noted, should mistake the provocative nature of a campaign fought in the Nazi colours of red, black and white. That campaign symbolises the shameful Swiss attitude to outsiders, and the fact it is backed by a vote makes it even more shameful, not less.


Nouri said...

I would ask that you not misquote my posting on the issue. The bit you quoted was a reference to the view of Swiss proponents of the ban, not my own and it is surely not to indicate the actual function of a minaret in a non-Muslim state. The view that minarets in Switzerland serve the same purpose they do in say, Egypt or that they did in the medieval Balkans is preposterous as they stand, yes, as a symbol of identity but serve a wholly cultural purpose and hardly even serve their utilitarian purpose (the call to prayer). They are monuments to a minority community's inclusion in their society as a whole.

JP said...

Swiss Minarets and European Islam
by Daniel Pipes
Jerusalem Post
December 9, 2009


First [the vote] raises delicate issues of reciprocity in Muslim-Christian relations. A few examples: When Our Lady of the Rosary, Qatar's first-ever church opened in 2008, it did so minus cross, bell, dome, steeple, or signboard. Rosary's priest, Father Tom Veneracion, explained their absence: "The idea is to be discreet because we don't want to inflame any sensitivities." And when the Christians of a town in Upper Egypt, Nazlet al-Badraman, finally after four years of "laborious negotiation, pleading, and grappling with the authorities," won permission in October to restore a tottering tower at the Mar-Girgis Church, a mob of about 200 Muslims attacked them, throwing stones and shouting Islamic and sectarian slogans. The situation for Copts is so bad, they have reverted to building secret churches.

Why, the Catholic Church and others are asking, should Christians suffer such indignities while Muslims enjoy full rights in historically Christian countries? The Swiss vote fits into this new spirit. Islamists, of course, reject this premise of equality; Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki warned his Swiss counterpart of unspecified "consequences" of what he called anti-Islamic acts, implicitly threatening to make the minaret ban an international issue comparable to the Danish cartoon fracas of 2006.

Second, Europe stands at a crossroads with respect to its Muslim population. Of the three main future prospects – everyone getting along, Muslims dominating, or Muslims rejected – the first is highly improbable but the second and third seem equally possible. In this context, the Swiss vote represents a potentially important legitimation of anti-Islamic views. The vote inspired support across Europe, as signaled by online polling sponsored by the mainstream media and by statements from leading figures.