Minarets and Europe's crisis
By Anas Altikriti
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?
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?
My compatriots' vote to ban minarets is fuelled by fear
The Swiss have voted not against towers, but Muslims. Across Europe, we must stand up to the flame-fanning populists
It wasn't meant to go this way. For months we had been told that the efforts to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland were doomed. The last surveys suggested around 34% of the Swiss population would vote for this shocking initiative. Last Friday, in a meeting organised in Lausanne, more than 800 students, professors and citizens were in no doubt that the referendum would see the motion rejected, and instead were focused on how to turn this silly initiative into a more positive future.
Today that confidence was shattered, as 57% of the Swiss population did as the Union Démocratique du Centre (UDC) had urged them to – a worrying sign that this populist party may be closest to the people's fears and expectations. For the first time since 1893 an initiative that singles out one community, with a clear discriminatory essence, has been approved in Switzerland. One can hope that the ban will be rejected at the European level, but that makes the result no less alarming. What is happening in Switzerland, the land of my birth?
There are only four minarets in Switzerland, so why is it that it is there that this initiative has been launched? My country, like many in Europe, is facing a national reaction to the new visibility of European Muslims. The minarets are but a pretext – the UDC wanted first to launch a campaign against the traditional Islamic methods of slaughtering animals but were afraid of testing the sensitivity of Swiss Jews, and instead turned their sights on the minaret as a suitable symbol.
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.
Over the last two decades Islam has become connected to so many controversial debates – violence, extremism, freedom of speech, gender discrimination, forced marriage, to name a few – it is difficult for ordinary citizens to embrace this new Muslim presence as a positive factor. There is a great deal of fear and a palpable mistrust. Who are they? What do they want? And the questions are charged with further suspicion as the idea of Islam being an expansionist religion is intoned. Do these people want to Islamise our country?
The campaign against the minarets was fuelled by just these anxieties and allegations. Voters were drawn to the cause by a manipulative appeal to popular fears and emotions. Posters featured a woman wearing a burka with the minarets drawn as weapons on a colonised Swiss flag. The claim was made that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with Swiss values. (The UDC has in the past demanded my citizenship be revoked because I was defending Islamic values too openly.) Its media strategy was simple but effective. Provoke controversy wherever it can be inflamed. Spread a sense of victimhood among the Swiss people: we are under siege, the Muslims are silently colonising us and we are losing our very roots and culture. This strategy worked. The Swiss majority are sending a clear message to their Muslim fellow citizens: we do not trust you and the best Muslim for us is the Muslim we cannot see.
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.
Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss citizen, is professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University. His most recent book is What I Believe
Mountains and minarets
Minarets are threatening because they rub salt in the wounds of those who feel the loss of their own faith
Switzerland has four mosques with minarets and a population of 350,000 nominal Muslims, mostly Europeans from Bosnia and Kosovo, of whom about 13% regularly go to prayer. Not a huge problem, one might have thought. Yet 57.5% of Swiss voters opted in a referendum for a constitutional ban on minarets, allegedly because of worries about "fundamentalism" and the "creeping Islamisation" of Switzerland.
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In the cold night air, they gathered.
First in threes and fours, until it became a bigger group. They carried candles and their anger - upset that Switzerland had approved a vote to ban minarets, the prayer towers on top of mosques.
They first read about the demonstration on a website and decided to join. And as the night got colder, the numbers got bigger, 50, 60, all denouncing the surprise result.
One woman told me: "This speaks against religious freedom in our country".
The police kept a watchful eye.