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Musings on the Swiss minaret ban 1, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Islam.
Tags: , , , ,
10 comments

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.

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