The Swiss minaret law and its implications

I’ve been asked to offer my opinion on the result of yesterday’s referendum on minarets in Switzerland, perhaps inevitably. I had expected such a law to be passed, contrary to the opinion polls which suggested that it wouldn’t, because a country where a major party can use such openly racist imagery as the “black sheep” and the “brown hands on the passport” posters is obviously one which is prone to bigotry. The result is disappointing and worrying, not necessarily because of the effects of the new law in itself, but what it demonstrates could happen. (More: Ginny, Sabiwabi, Aaminah Hernández, Tariq Ramadan in the Guardian, Yasir Qadhi @ Muslim Matters.)

Of course, most mosques in the west do not have minarets and never have done. Minarets are there to issue the call to prayer publically. We don’t do that in the west in most places, because we are a minority and most people do not want to hear it. Things may be different in some northern towns, but in London there are some mosques which have minarets and which give the public call at Friday prayer times. Mosques do not need minarets anyway. Even many new, purpose-built ones, such as the very fine mosque in Westbourne Park, London, do without them.

What it represents is that a wealthy and educated European country can vote for a constitutional amendment based on bigotry. There are just four minarets in the whole country, which are not (at least not all) great big spikes piercing the sky, but low-rise, unobtrusive and sympathetic structures. Minarets have been depicted as militaristic symbols of aggression, when in fact Muslim immigrants want religious buildings that have the same features as back home, which is why they erect minarets even when they have no intention to use them, at least immediately, for their traditional purpose (in some places, minaret-like clock towers are erected, as is the case here in Kingston). In many Muslim countries, many mosques other than the major ones have small minarets if they have one at all, as I saw when I stayed in the old part of Cairo in 1999.

The level and stupidity of the bigotry is as astounding as it was during the “debate” over the headscarf ban in France in 2004. Feminists described them as male power symbols and there have been repeated attempts to link minarets with the oppression of women, including female genital mutilation, which is in fact not practised in most of the countries from which the Muslims in Switzerland originate, such as the Balkans; some idiotic housewife named Julia Werner, from the same town where the minaret whose proposal caused the fuss is, or was meant to be, located said:

If we give them a minaret, they’ll have us all wearing burqas. Before you know it, we’ll have sharia law and women being stoned to death in our streets. We won’t be Swiss any more.

Related to this was the “Stop! Yes!” poster, which featured an image of a woman in niqaab surrounded by minarets piercing a Swiss flag. By most accounts, very few women in Switzerland wear it, and mosques are mostly attended by men, and in places in Europe where there has been trouble involving Muslims (or people of Muslim origin), be it terrorism, crime or social disorder), regardless of whether it is actually anything to do with Islam or whether it is a general urban ghetto problem, most of it has come from men. So why is a picture of a woman used to illustrate opposition to a building which is mostly used by men? The whole argument is a straw man being used to hide the fact that the referendum is on Muslims.

Another red herring was the comparison with European courts supposedly banning the display of crucifixes in classrooms in Italy. Of course, Switzerland is not in Italy and most Swiss people outside one or two cantons in the south do not speak Italian, so what did it have to do with anything? Besides which, the display of crucifixes in classrooms is a different matter to allowing a minaret to be built in the street. Anybody can see that, even if (as with me) I do not see anything strange in a cross being on a wall in a classroom in a Catholic school, even if I personally dislike what it symbolises. The mere presence of a minaret does not force anyone to go into the mosque, or force Islam onto anyone. It just reflects that Muslims are there, and had the resources to build it.

This referendum could demonstrate to the Swiss right, and to anti-Islamic elements all over Europe, that motions to ban anything to do with Islam are potential vote-winners; it might also serve as a reminder to the more apathetic voters that if they don’t want something passed, they should vote against it themselves rather than relying on other people. On this particular measure, over 45% of the Swiss electorate neither cared enough one way or another to vote; whether they will on any other issue affecting Muslims and not affecting them directly remains to be seen. A Muslim leader was quoted in the news this morning as saying that he had heard talk of banning the headscarf or even the Qur’an. It could serve as a wake-up call to anti-racist elements across Europe, and perhaps even in Switzerland where, if you have enough signatures, you can get a referendum staged. This is not the case anywhere else in Europe; once a parliament passes a law, it will take another parliamentary vote to reverse it.

I have also seen some remarks (such as from Ginny and Aaminah) that indicates that this vote has reinforced American Muslim hostility to Europe. I can understand the perception that Europe is unremittingly hostile, and I do not believe that Muslim rights are secure anywhere in Europe right now; practically everywhere in western Europe except, as far as I know, Spain and Portugal, there are either already laws against one thing or another related to Muslim practice or significant elements in the country’s politics wanting to introduce them. I would like to remind them that no country in the world is an ideal place for Muslims to live; I am sure many of us can think of reasons why ours is the least worst place, including myself, but Muslims are threatened everywhere, including the USA.

Ultimately, there are tens of millions of us here in Europe and most of us have nowhere else to go, much as is the case for so many American Muslims. Switzerland is, at the moment, by far not the worst place in Europe to be a Muslim. We will have to see if this referendum results in any more repressive measures in Switzerland or if it leads to the pendulum swinging back the other way. The situation in the rest of Europe, where such laws can be enacted by parliaments at the perception of public will (often as manifested in the popular press) and cannot be reversed anything like as easily, should be a greater cause for concern. It is up to anti-racists to redouble their efforts and fight these bigots and demolish the stupid arguments and specious reasoning they commonly use.

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