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Musings on the Swiss minaret ban 1, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Islam.
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As I am sure you are aware by now, Switzerland held a referendum and 58% of those that voted have decided to ban minarets in the central European country. Much of the coverage of this topic has been impressively myopic, with even ordinarily trustworthy commentators losing any sense of proportion or rationality. Take the opening sentence of the usually reliable ‘The Moor Next Door’’s article on the topic.

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.

Yes, let’s contrast and counter the Swiss example of myopic foolish, false and harmful generalizations with an absurd, manifestly rude and bigoted generalization of 500 years of a continent’s history. Exceedingly poor stuff. There are, of course, just as many vitriolic pieces celebrating this referendum. Both are stirring up the other in a useless competition of half-truths, snide comments and at times unadulterated and naked hatred of some mystical ‘other’.

So, with this in mind, perhaps it is possible to engage in something approaching a reasoned summary and analysis.

The Swiss that voted to ban the minarets were, as far as I see it, essentially duped […so much for an impartial analysis…]. Take the image of the campaign for example [MEI has an excellent article on this topic including a good analysis of the image itself, from which I will borrow some ideas here]. The Swiss flag, the symbol of not only the country itself but of neutrality, implied impartiality, tolerance and the basis of the universal symbol for impartial medical assistance, is being subsumed and blotted out by black, menacing-looking, rocket-shaped minarets. There is also a woman wearing a severe Niqab looking more like Darth Vader’s wife than most Muslim women. This is the kind of hate-stoking image that was never going to lead to any kind of reasoned debate.

So much of the commentary backing the banning of the Minarets portrayed Islam as some kind of monolithic, universally oppressive, insidiously-expansionist religion, ripe to sneak into Europe and subvert it from within. Indeed, overall, this poster and much of the language used has blatant overtones of the World War Two propaganda.

This is not to say, however, that Islam is a religion without numerous faults, problems and issues. Certainly it is plagued (as are all religions) with divisive and emotive issues, not least of which is the role of women, one of the central issues in the referendum.

Yet, after living in the Middle East for several years, after loving parts of it and truly loathing others, after living cheek-by-jowl with Muslims and discussing anything and everything with them for some time now, the image of Islam painted by the Swiss banning campaign was, I firmly believe, wholly partial and unfair. For those whose only exposure to Islam and to this topic as a whole was this poster and similarly alarmist sentiment, I am not at all surprised that those wanting the ban won out. I [uselessly] imagine that a reasoned discussion, analysis and explanation of Islam would have led to a vastly different result

Is there any chance that people and the media generally are blowing this ban out of proportion? Well, yes and no. No, in that such a Luddite-ish move by a supposedly enlightened country is clearly, well, unenlightened and diametrically opposed to espoused notions of religious and cultural tolerance. However, a large part of me doesn’t see this ban as that significant.

Firstly, this is clearly more or a gesture than a real, practical policy to oppose the building of Minarets i.e. they have not just averted the blotting out of the Alpine trees with hundreds of Minarets that were about to be built.

Secondly, if the Swiss really want to ban the building of a tall religious spires it is their country and – whilst I don’t agree with it – they should have the right to do so. Islam can still be practiced, after all. Indeed, as MEI points out, Islam originally stemmed from small room-based gatherings. On a similar note, I believe that the call to prayer should not be broadcast in Switzerland or, for example, the UK. Obviously if an overwhelmingly large majority of the local population decide that they want the call, then that is fine, but otherwise, an alarm clock ought to have to do. Neither a tall tower nor a reminder to get up are intrinsic parts of Islam. If a person wants every last trapping of Islam and can’t do without them, then – and I don’t mean this to sound quite as mean as it can be interpreted – they should live in a Muslim country.

Overall, therefore, I don’t expect that this decision will have a great impact on…well, anything really. Switzerland’s 5% of Muslims may well feel ostracized to perhaps a large degree, which is far from a good thing, but they are still living in a democracy, with high living standards and the freedom to practice every last aspect of the most important parts of their region. There are far worse situations to be in.


1. Kal - 2, December 2009

“Yes, let’s contrast and counter the Swiss example of myopic foolish, false and harmful generalizations with an absurd, manifestly rude and bigoted generalization of 500 years of a continent’s history”

Appreciate the criticism. I recognize the hyperbole (and rudeness) in the opening (which is intentional) and your commentary on the issue more generally. But nothing in that post is intended to counter the Swiss example. The intention was deplore the attitudes that led to the ban. And that’s pretty much it.

I can accept the charges of absurdness and rudeness (which wee, again intentional) but that the generalization is “bigoted,” I don’t see. Did the Holocaust, the Inquisition and the invention of anti-Semitism not occur in Europe as reactions to minorities and things associated with them (as well as other more general problems)? Europe has a history with minorities that is not pretty, and the sentiments growing across the continent do not speak to progress. Yes Swiss Muslims can still pray, but what is the sentiment behind the ban saying to them about the way the majority sees them and their place in society? And where does that lead Swiss Muslims and non-Muslims going forward? It is not meant to be a generalization representing all of European history: it is a generalization about its history with minorities. I have to admit that my post reflects a minority’s myopia.

If the popular sentiment has its way (not just in Switzerland, either) there are very bad things that could happen for European Muslims (it only due to reasonable elites that this is remote). And my post celebrates that there are institutions that make is such that it can’t. With the way the conversation about Western Muslims is going (especially on my side of the Atlantic), there needs to be a Western Muslim commentary that is not merely “reasonable,” when it comes to expressions of bigotry towards minorities. If we say, “well, they’re telling us that they don’t want us here, and they’re making moves to show us that most of the population thinks this way, let’s be happy we can still pray,” what do we say when something more offensive and more hostile come around? I apologize for my pessimism, but even if we look on the bright side, the discriminatory and bigoted attitudes the ban represents (and the ban itself should not be what alarms us, its the support it got and the way other Europeans, and Americans, have embraced similar attitudes) should be troubling regardless of whether Muslims can still pray.

davidbroberts - 3, December 2009

Thanks for taking the time to reply.

A few thoughts:

– I wholly agree with your assessment of the attitudes that led to the ban. Indeed, that was essentially what my own commentary on the issue was taking issue with.

– Of course Europe has a decidedly patchy history when it comes to minorities rights and there have been egregious examples of extreme forms of anti-minority policies/practices. Whilst I understand that it might be useful to highlight that this recent decision may be found as part of a wider, historical pattern, I personally think that bringing in such extreme examples as the Holocaust and the Inquisition are unwarranted. Yes, these horrid events ‘started small’, so to speak, and the slippery slope argument is always present and possible, but for me it comes across as alarmist and too provocative. As MEI commented, by starting like this you may well lose a number of potential friends who get the (false) impression that you are but ‘one of those angry, irrational’ bloggers.

– I take your point about making a proverbial stand about this issue as some kind of bulwark/defence/raising awareness campaign against potentially more damaging anti-Muslim policies in the future, and that the notion that Muslims should ‘be pleased’ that they can still pray as being woefully inadequate a situation. Again though, I do not subscribe to the pessimistic slippery slope notion. I expect (and fervently hope) that ‘Europe’ has far more of a tolerant core that can and will accept Muslim’s right and integrate them into society. I think that most people in Europe, and even most people in Switzerland, are not intrinsically anti-minority or in this case anti-Muslim. Instead, they are fearful of the unknown which, again, in this case, is personified by the Muslim community. I suspect that most people’s “knowledge of Islam” [please note question marks] comes from either Ahmadinajad wistfully hoping to push Israel into the sea, an occasional story about Saudi executing a witch, or, need it be said, some terrorist justifying some atrocity with a line or two of the Quran or some Hadith. Getting people to see and understand that these things have as much to do with true Islam as Timothy McVeigh or the KKK has to do with Christianity is, obviously, the issue. Yet as a start, I would tentatively suggest that we shouldn’t begin by defaming a continent though dredging up the worst examples of its barbarous past.

2. zaydoun - 3, December 2009

As a lapsed Muslim, I find these cries of “bigotry!” and “racism!” increasingly tiresome, especially when one takes a closer look at the way Christians and other religious minorities are treated in countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia

In Kuwait, the few dilapidated churches we have cannot display crosses or indeed look too “church-like” with steeples and such.. Christians are no longer allowed to become Kuwaiti citizens (enacted into law in 1981), and church bells are not allowed to ring even on Xmas Eve. And speaking of Christmas.. every year we have a bunch of fundies telling us we must never wish our Christian friends or colleagues a Merry Xmas because it is un-Islamic even though they say it is perfectly acceptable to receive Ramadan or Eid greetings from said Christian friends or colleagues!! Mosques are being built across Europe with Kuwaiti funding but a license to build a small church anywhere in Kuwait is out of the question!

And don’t get me started on the things we ban Christians and others from doing because they go “against the teachings of Islam”!

Seems it’s OK for us to make life miserable for Christians living among us but totally outrageous for the Swiss not to want to be disturbed 5 times a day by the prayer call

So to everyone crying foul over this admittedly narrow-minded Swiss move… take a look at your own bigotry and narrow-mindedness first!!

davidbroberts - 4, December 2009

The double standards in this topic rather go without saying I feel. I suppose the key, though, is that ‘everyone’ expects better from a modern, ‘enlightened’ democracy like Switzerland.

3. zaydoun - 5, December 2009

We may expect better from Switzerland, but we certainly don’t deserve it!

4. Saudi scholars slam Swiss minaret decision « The Gulf blog - 6, December 2009

[…] Arabia, Saudi scholars, Saudi scholars Swiss minaret ban, Swiss trackback Indeed, as I’ve said, it’s not a smart or even that nice, educated or rational a decision, but still, Saudi […]

5. T - 11, December 2009

“Secondly, if the Swiss really want to ban the building of a tall religious spires it is their country and – whilst I don’t agree with it – they should have the right to do so. Islam can still be practiced, after all. […] Neither a tall tower nor a reminder to get up are intrinsic parts of Islam. If a person wants every last trapping of Islam and can’t do without them, then – and I don’t mean this to sound quite as mean as it can be interpreted – they should live in a Muslim country.”

Thank you for reproducing an inverted version of the argument Saudi religious scholars put forward against the construction of churches and of the Kuwaitis for that matter. If the Saudis and Kuwaitis don’t want churches, quoting you, “it is their country and – whilst I don’t agree with it – they should have the right to do so. ” Christianity can still be practiced, after all. If a person wants every last trapping of Christianity and can’t do without them, then – and I don’t mean this to sound quite as mean as it can be interpreted – they should live in a Christian country.

davidbroberts - 11, December 2009

That’s a good way of putting it. Those countries do – of course – have the right to ban the building of Churches. But, like Switzerland, it casts them in something of a backward light and they certainly can’t complain about the Swiss decision.

6. Anonymous - 12, December 2009

It’s really not a debate of Christianity vs Islam. It’s in fact a much more complex issue with many dimensions – as BBC said, political symbolism, anxiety over growing immigrants, and as others have said, Islamophobia and also a fear of the Other in general. Please visit this post –


However, I do appreciate the honesty of Zaydon in admittimg that the Islamic countries that are indulging in undemocratic religious encroachments and human rights violations should be demanding democratic treatment from Switzerland. The appreciable fact is that it comes from a person from that community, eventhough he may be “lapsed.” I have seen several others like him on the Internet who have had the honesty and the courage to contrast the encroachments on freedom of the individual in Islamic countries with the Swiss vote. The Islamic countries should set their own house in order before decrying Switzerland or Europe.

davidbroberts - 12, December 2009

Well said.

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