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Minarets and Europe's crisis
Analyst says Switzerland should have never allowed a referendum on minarets to proceed.
Last Modified: 02 Dec 2009 12:41 GMT

Swiss demonstrators protest against the results of the vote to ban new minarets [EPA]

The mind is boggled by the fact that Switzerland, a country renowned for its tolerant nature, could come to see less than a handful of minarets as a threat to its identity and culture.

The main campaign poster used by far right groups to rally against the construction of minarets in Switzerland depicted a Muslim woman in niqab standing before a multitude of minarets graphically rendered to look like missiles.

Switzerland's Commission Against Racism said that the campaign poster defamed the country's Muslim minority.

Neither the niqab nor the minaret is characteristic of the Muslim community in Switzerland but both have been regularly used to stoke the flames of hatred and fear against Muslims throughout Europe in recent times.

And it was that fear which pushed over half of Swiss voters to choose, by a majority of 57 per cent, to support the minaret ban called for by the Union Démocratique du Centre (UDC), a right wing populist party.

Switzerland's identity crisis

The vote revealed that Switzerland, like a number of other Western nations, faces a deep identity crisis which has nothing to do with Islam, sharia, immigration or any other red-rags that were waived by the far-right to increase European fears of Muslims. 

The question the Swiss should really be asking themselves is whether the values of human rights, civil liberties and democracy - upheld so preciously by European nations - are practised as reverently as they are preached.

This becomes even more of a crisis when one recalls that among the crucial outcomes of the struggle between church and state throughout Europe was the emergence of these values as an 'alternative' to church dictate and the preaching of clerics.

Hence, the first serious problem with the referendum process is how a democratic society can begin to contemplate holding a popular vote on a matter that is regarded integral to the core themes of freedom and rights.

While it is only fair to assert that the Swiss government and most newspaper editors had urged voters to defeat the ban, it remains the case that the vote should not have been held in the first place. The very concept of a referendum in which the vast majority are asked to vote on a topic specific to the culture or religion of a minority group is in itself extremely problematic.

Imagine the furor that would certainly ensue should a country with an overwhelmingly Muslim population be asked to vote on whether its small Christian community should be allowed to build their churches according to a particular design or method, or whether they would rather do without the church bells sounding from time to time.

Limits of democracy?

There are currently only four minarets throughout Switzerland [AFP]

What next, one wonders, and how far does this appetite for 'democracy' go? Is it a matter of time before there is a referendum on whether or not Muslims should be allowed to practise their faith, or even be allowed to exist at all?

This might sound slightly melodramatic, but a quick examination of where we were and how far we have come in so little time, offers quite a concerning assumption of where we might be heading.

The reader should bear in mind that the grand sum of existing minarets in all of Switzerland is exactly ... four.

It is only a tiny fraction of the Swiss population which regularly encounters the sight of a mosque minaret.

The referendum becomes even more ludicrous when one discovers that there were precisely two applications for building permits which included the construction of minarets, and neither likely to be built within the next five years.

Therefore, since it was unlikely that the Swiss people were soon going to wake up to find themselves surrounded by a forest of minarets, this whole process begs the question of what the real motives were behind the referendum.

With most European governments continuously flaunting democracy, civil liberties and minority rights as the cornerstones of a national identity, it remains a mystery how the issue of minarets was presented as a challenge and a problem facing multi-cultural, liberal and secular Europe.

Can a civilised people be so ill at ease and low on confidence that the specific design of a handful of buildings be construed as a threat to the country's national heritage, identity and culture?

Questionable timing?

One wonders where this leaves the throng of Western commentators who persistently remind their audiences that Christians are disallowed from practising their faith freely or building churches in certain Muslim countries. In fact one wonders whether the ramifications of the Swiss vote on Christians and other minorities living freely among Muslim societies were ever considered.

Geert Wilders says the Netherlands should also ban the construction of minarets [AFP]

Whatever the outcome, the impact of this ban on Muslims in Switzerland in day-to-day terms will be almost negligible. Muslims pray in all sorts of buildings and in all sorts of venues, with minarets and without.

Indeed, figures suggest that most Western Muslims perform their daily prayers in buildings that are not classified as mosques in the first place. Which is why this was a non-starter on the scale of issues concerning the people of Switzerland; including Muslims.

Consider the referendum's timing: It comes following the so-called war on terror and coincides with the rise of far-right and fascist groups.

The timing coupled with the racist and inflammatory discourse that has guided this process, the images that adorn the campaign posters as well as those who have promoted this ban, indicate that Europe is in the throes of an Islamophobic trend gathering pace as a result of the gross failures of official economic, social and political policies.

Already, celebratory remarks from far-right and racist figures, including Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the radical-right Austrian Freedom Party, and Marine Le Pen, the vice-president of France's National Front, have reverberated from various corners of the European continent.

Dutch deputy Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom has gone as far as to suggest that they will be following the example of their Swiss compatriots and pursuing a ban on mosque minarets in the Netherlands. The pioneers of Europe's enlightenment movement must be turning in their graves.

Integrating Muslims in Europe

While I acknowledge statements made by various commentators regarding the need for the Muslim community in Switzerland (and throughout Europe) to do more to integrate and prove their worth to their respective societies, I would warn against asking too much of a community under so much scrutiny and pressure.

Building mosque minarets was never seen by Swiss Muslims as central to and inseparable from their faith or religious practise. Equivocally, Switzerland should not have made the banning of minarets a pivot about which it defines its national identity and culture.

The construction of minarets is a right - one that bears no effect whatsoever on the vast majority of the Swiss people. By voting to ban this right, it is Swiss - and Western - values which become poorer and less meaningful.

The only way forward is for a realisation that Europe is not built solely on a Judeo-Christian heritage, but that Muslims too have played a vital and significant role in shaping modern day Europe through contributions of culture, arts, politics, law, theology, science, medicine and dozens of other disciplines.

There must be a realisation too that the 30 million or so European Muslims have become part of the European social fabric, through an invaluable contribution which they have made over decades if not for centuries.

By singling them out as suspects and potential enemies within, European societies are creating wide-spread instability and future uncertainty for everyone on the social, economic and political levels.

For a Europe that still commemorates the tragedies that occurred when it played host to a concerted attack on one of its own communities nearly 70 years ago, it is a serious over-sight and a case of horrific negligence to allow the same to happen again, only against a different victim.

Anas Altikriti is the CEO of the Cordoba Foundation, a London-based think-tank concerned with building bridges and improving understanding between the West and the Muslim world, through research, training and conflict resolution.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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