On the Minaret ban

One should register no surprise that the continent which produced the Inquisition, anti-Semitism, the Crusades and the Holocaust would give rise to a sentiment that would lead 57% of Swiss voters to ban the construction of minarets. It should be even less surprising that this would come round in a country where the largest party in parliament made itself so by posting up images of white sheep bucking black ones off of the national flag. Proponents of the Swiss ban on the construction of minarets say they fear the imposition of sharia law; that the towers rising off of mosques illustrate Muslim dominance over their society. They go on that Muslims, unlike Christians or Jews, make “political and legal demands.” To preserve Swiss culture and law, no more minarets ought to go up. Some feminists, representing the most assuredly misguided sect yet to speak, added that the minaret is a phallic symbol, representing male oppression of women. Cutting minarets from the skyline would, in their minds, take a stand against misogyny. “If we give them a minaret, they’ll have us all wearing burqas,” as one put it. The Muslims don’t believe women to have any worth and we ought to convince them otherwise by keeping them from building vertically, to paraphrase another. We should be eager to catch a flier compelling us to a rally urging a ban on the construction of bell towers and spires, of slender and high reaching sculptures. Such a hope would only yield disappointment, though. For even if we would like to assume the good and honest intentions of the ban — to accept the line of one parliamentarian that the trouble isn’t Muslims as people, but merely the legal implications of their religion — we would be stupid, foolish and criminally gullible to do so. It would be disingenuous to call the majority decision on the matter anything but an expression of popular and growing racism and bigotry in Swiss society. Worst of all is that we may not say that a wretched government is responsible for this violation of religious freedom. It was the Swiss people — though it is better to say the unenlightened among them.

So brazen is this bigotry that a country that is home to many of the most important institutions of international law could misplace is conscience and forget its obligations under multiple treaties and conventions relating to the rights of minorities and religious freedom. The Council of Europe and others rightly attacked the ban. The process of law will, if we are lucky, remind the Swiss that, contrary to what would seem to be popular belief, they, too, are responsible for protecting the rights of minorities. But American newspapers, too busy gobbling up the tomes of European bigots, would not dare offer a grain of intellectual honesty on the matter. The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial board is evidently disappointed with the ban, writes that the vote is regrettable not because it reflects a Swiss willingness to deprive religious minorities of their liberties, but because it “becomes a very visible and easily exploited symbol of supposed European intolerance”. Evidently men who would like to tell us that they fear minarets because their construction in Switzerland would mean that 5% of the population, much of which has no citizenship and is badly discriminated against socially and economically, would “mark its territory,” there and “mark the progression of Islamic law” is not intolerant? The paper goes on: “it accomplishes too little because it seeks merely to hide from view the problems that gave rise to the fear of the minaret in the first place.” And what are those? “[T]he connection between radical imams and terrorist acts [. . .] the fact that too many European Muslims flatly reject the norms of their host countries, sometimes in ways that are criminal: honor killings, child brides and the like.” The Journal accepts the hysterical logic of the ban but not the ban itself. Pity.

On the other side of the narrow American political spectrum, the New York Times is just as yielding. “In a vote that displayed a widespread anxiety about Islam,” the paper of liberal America writes, “the Swiss on Sunday overwhelmingly imposed a national ban on the construction of minarets”. At least the Times is willing to note that the ban “undermines” the country’s reputation for tolerance. The paper did not see the matter significant enough warrant an editorial opinion, showing an indifference and spinelessness on the matter of European Muslim rights reflected in its artless and glowing reviews of Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution Europe. The orgy of ignorant praise has, surprisingly, involved the Economist. Readers should look to Laila Lalami’s terrific, if long, review of that medieval text in the Nation, as well as Ruthvan’s excellent take in the New York Review of Books.  “Anxiety,” does not accurately describe the revolting and uncompromising nature of the minaret vote. “Prejudice,” comes closer and “chauvanism” and “xenophobia,” closer still.

The discourse around the subject has centered not around a desire to stem the “tide” of Islamic fundamentalism but around power. The minaret, for its opponents, symbolizes Islam’s “arrival” in the Alps. It stands to proclaim the Muslim presence above other faiths and peoples. Banning it, then, is to ban a symbol of Muslim power and existence. These people who have come to Switzerland as workers, doing the quiet and dirty work the Swiss work culture deems beneath the native, ought to stay in their place, their heads down and their superstitions out of sight. It signals an acceptance of the principle and mentality of “white power” more than of women’s rights, the preservation of liberalism or any other fuzzy notion it purports to defend. The aesthetics of identity, and therefore power, are what the drive is really about. It is a way for a people in doubt to affirm and define their confused identity by rejecting that of the newcomer’s.

Caldwell’s thesis claims that Europeans are too timid, their intellectual and elite cultures too meek to “stand up” for their civilization and culture. The Swiss ban has inspired other representatives from County Bigotry to take similar measures to show that the Dutch or the Germans or whomever else “won’t take it anymore.” The Times would have us call this “populist protest,” rather than the bigotry it is. In the Guardian a cowardly Tarek Ramadan asks us to understand that Europeans are in a “deep identity crisis,” and have made Muslims their target.

Every European country has its specific symbols or topics through which European Muslims are targeted. In France it is the headscarf or burka; in Germany, mosques; in Britain, violence; cartoons in Denmark; homosexuality in the Netherlands – and so on. It is important to look beyond these symbols and understand what is really happening in Europe in general and in Switzerland in particular: while European countries and citizens are going through a real and deep identity crisis, the new visibility of Muslims is problematic – and it is scary.

At the very moment Europeans find themselves asking, in a globalising, migratory world, “What are our roots?”, “Who are we?”, “What will our future look like?”, they see around them new citizens, new skin colours, new symbols to which they are unaccustomed.

There is truth in this. The post-modern, post-industrial “Europe” emerging today is founded on a nebulous concept, a continent whose borders are defined not by geography or culture but by the bigotries of a few big countries. But at the same time this is too weak in the knees for any person who takes the well being of minorities as an issue of gravity to take seriously. The erosion of religious freedom in Europe and the adoption of a tone of speech and politics that frequently casts “Muslims” in the place where “Jews” sat not a hundred years ago is not something to be brushed off lightly. It is a terrible trend that deserves a more vigorous response and more responsible tone than it has been given. Ramadan concludes:

Who is to be blamed? I have been repeating for years to Muslim people that they have to be positively visible, active and proactive within their respective western societies. In Switzerland, over the past few months, Muslims have striven to remain hidden in order to avoid a clash. It would have been more useful to create new alliances with all these Swiss organisations and political parties that were clearly against the initiative. Swiss Muslims have their share of responsibility but one must add that the political parties, in Europe as in Switzerland have become cowed, and shy from any courageous policies towards religious and cultural pluralism. It is as if the populists set the tone and the rest follow. They fail to assert that Islam is by now a Swiss and a European religion and that Muslim citizens are largely “integrated”. That we face common challenges, such as unemployment, poverty and violence – challenges we must face together. We cannot blame the populists alone – it is a wider failure, a lack of courage, a terrible and narrow-minded lack of trust in their new Muslim citizens.

Surely Swiss Muslims ought to take an active role in their democracy. How likely is it that taking a stronger stand would have been either profitable or wise is questionable. In a country where mosques are vandalized regularly, where the popular opinion of Muslims and peoples of color is quite low and where many Muslims do not have citizenship the formation of “new alliances,” is easier said than done. It is not “as if populists set the tone and the rest follow,” this is what has gone on, not only in Switzerland but elsewhere in Europe. Attacks on Muslim religious freedom go on regularly in Europe, sometimes protected by the good graces of the rule of law and constitutional government, in other places less so. If Swiss Muslims were “largely ‘integrated,'” their compatriots would  defend their rights as if they were their own. If the majority refuses to recognize that Swiss Muslims are Swiss and are thus entitled to the same liberties and obligations as others it is no fault of the Muslims. Was it the fault of the Jews, who saw themselves as no more than Germans or Frenchmen of the chosen creed, that their Christian neighbors could at one point not bring themselves to see them as equals? Was it the fault of the Afro-American that whites saw him as no different than a mule? The trouble is not that Muslims fail to convince Europeans of their equality, but that too often “native” Europeans are too easily convinced otherwise by the activities of some Muslims and the bombast of predatory politicians. We cannot deny the responsibility of Muslims for the defense of their rights by all legal means and to respect their national traditions. But we should not blame the victim, either. At least he recognizes that those who ought to be defending minorities in Switzerland have cowered from doing so.

Richard White, also in the Guardian, asks: are Europeans “set to follow the Arabs down that path towards self-pity and fearsomeness, backwardness and xenophobia?” He offers readers a look into the roots of European paranoia about Muslim aggression and conquest — he links German hostility towards Turks to Ottoman encroachment at Vienna, French racism against North Africans to colonialism, Spain’s its history with Morocco (it is, allegedly the case that many Spaniards associate Moroccans with fascism, as they were heavy among Franco’s foot-soldiers), and so on. White at least calls it what it is. He critiques Ramadan’s “reasonable” piece (the Ramadan article, by the way, is likely deliberately “reasonable,” so as not to raise mainstream suspicion of his intentions or tone). He puts European bigotry into the global perspective, linking it to fear of a world dominated by Asia. He adds the Arabs into that pot, too. Yet we must remember that xenophobia and racism were present in Europe before China was thought to be rising. The Europeans have long feared the rise of the darker castes, reflecting their fear of decline. White is right here. It is a human reaction, and, as he shows by quoting the words of a Home Minister pledging to fight racism, its a good thing Man came up with government to protect neighbors from one another. It is a depressing, though, when government becomes a tool of majorities to dominate and pick on minorities. And everyone involved in such processes should be ashamed.

The Guardian‘s editorial is on point in saying that the move reflects “growing opposition to migration, the rise of the far right, widespread hatred and fear of Islam – apply just as much to other European countries,” continuing on that it “should shame Switzerland and worry Europe. Although the vote was ostensibly about minarets, of which there are only four in the whole country, and not even mosques, which can still be built, voters were really being lured to express their views on religionand race.”


11 thoughts on “On the Minaret ban

  1. I would take your righteous indignation more seriously if in this blog I had seen any serious discussion of issues of religious liberty in the Maghreb and in the Arab world in general. For instance, your coverage of the Algerian anti-conversion laws from a few years ago was not exactly impressive. Discussion of the legislation that esssentially makes the construction of Churches in large part of the North Africa impossible (starting with Egypt)? I don’t remember any. Massive religious intolerance in Saudi Arabia? Total state control of religion in Tunisia? Almost complete destruction of Christian communities in northern Sudan? Nah, these things are completely insignificant compared to the fact that Swiss Muslims cannot build minarets.

    But I know, for some mysterious reason since time immemorable Europeans are racist bigots and all their concerns aboutMuslims are due to that fact that they are not white enough. A deep and subtle reading of the situation indeed.

  2. Thank you! And where is is my defense of European discrimination, if you please?

    While sarcastic in tone, my comments where serious and in good faith. I periodically read your blog and I appreciate most of your analysis. On this topic I feel you are unbalanced and ideological. Accusing me of supporting white European racism strengthens that impression. But if you are not interested in my opinions, I will be happy to keep reading the blog without bothering you with my comments. Sorry…

    • I refer to your comment about the hijab being akin to wearing KKK robes in defense of the French ban on the burqa and your assertion that western Muslims’ rights ought to be dependent on the respect for the rights of minorities by governments in Muslim countries. No one accused you of support white European racism, merely of defending discrimination.

  3. I was linked to your blog from ‘Stuff White People Do’ and I have to say that this was a great article. From what I’ve seen, the US news stations that are picking up this story have been giving it I spin that seems to say “Look how racist the Swiss are! Thank our Christian God that we’re not like those racists!”

    I especially liked your point that the dialogue many people are using to abuse Muslims had been used against Jews less then 50 years ago. I hadn’t thought of that before and the connection is frightening considering how true it is. This nonsense really needs to stop.

  4. I am doing work for a social studies lesson on Ramadan and have been previously linked to so much racist garbage I was beginning to lose faith in all humanity! Thank you for providing me with hope that there are still people out there who will stand up for basic human rights and freedom of religion without grouping all religious practitioners into one “terrorist” group. Thank you for speaking out!!

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