Switzerland's Invisible Minarets
By PETER STAMM
December 5, 2009
THREE years ago I was invited to the Tehran International Book Fair; afterward I traveled around the country. The mosques I visited were so empty as to give the impression that Iran was as secular as Western Europe.
It wasn't until I took a trip to a place of pilgrimage in the mountains that I saw large numbers of the faithful. The traffic started piling up even before my group reached the town of Imamzadeh Davood. A few of the pilgrims were making the trek on foot, together with the sheep they intended to sacrifice. The narrow streets were bustling just as at Christian places of pilgrimage: booths crammed with junk, groups of teenagers taking pictures of each other, every nook and cranny packed with candles lighted by believers in the hope their wishes would be fulfilled.
I was received by the mayor and invited to dinner the first Swiss he had ever met. He showed me the mosque and led me to the tomb of the saint. I, the unbeliever, was allowed into places where even pilgrims were not permitted. During my three weeks in Iran, my faith, or rather the lack thereof, was never an issue. However bellicose the political face of Islam often appears, in everyday practice what I experienced was a religion of hospitality and tolerance.
Switzerland, on the other hand, appeared alarmingly intolerant last weekend, when 58 percent of our voters approved a ban on the building of new minarets. When the minaret referendum was proposed by the rightist Swiss People's Party, no one really took it seriously.
Some consideration was given to having it declared invalid on the grounds that it was unconstitutional as well as a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, but in the end the government agreed to allow the referendum to go forward, probably in the hope that it would be roundly defeated and thereby become a symbol of Swiss open-mindedness. So certain were the politicians of prevailing that hardly any publicity was fielded against the initiative. As a result, the streets were dominated by the proponents' posters, which showed a veiled woman in front of a forest of minarets that looked like missiles.
Minarets have never been a problem in Switzerland. There are four in the entire country, some of which have been standing for decades. (One of them is in my city but I've never seen it.) And only two other minarets were being planned. Most mosques are in faceless industrial districts where no one notices them. But perhaps that is exactly the problem. Islamic immigrants don't live with us but beside us, just as French, German, Italian and Romansch-speaking Swiss live alongside each other without a great deal of animosity or interaction.
The average Swiss citizen has no real contact with Islam. Headscarves are seldom seen on the street, and chadors are practically nonexistent. Moreover, when young proponents of the ban talk about problems with Muslims, they almost exclusively mean young men from the Balkans, who come across as male chauvinists but are almost never active members of Muslim communities. Most people encounter Islam only through the news media, which don't report on the Muslims in our country but focus on terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Iranian plans for an atomic bomb and Muammar el-Qaddafi's absurd proposal to abolish Switzerland.
It's hard to find one overarching explanation for why the Swiss voted as they did. Similar referendums have brought surprises: 35 percent of voters wanting to do away with the army, for instance, or 58 percent approving of same-sex partnerships. The prevailing Swiss attitude is both conservative and liberal: on the one hand everything should stay the way it is, on the other everyone should be able to do what he or she wants.
What's most conspicuous in these referendums is that we are a nation of pragmatists, inclined to our dour obstinacy, and we owe our success not to grand ideas but to problem-solving. So focused are we on getting things done, it almost doesn't matter if the problem isn't a problem, or if the solution risks sullying the country's reputation. We Swiss sacrificed our good standing as a multicultural and open-minded society to ban the construction of minarets that no one intends to build in order to defend ourselves against an Islam that has never existed in Switzerland.
Perhaps Muslims here are more Swiss than the rest of us might think. They too will solve the problem we've made for them: they are likely to swallow the results of this referendum, do without their minarets and continue to assemble for prayer, unnoticed and unperturbed.
Peter Stamm is the author of the novel "On a Day Like This." This essay was translated by Philip Boehm from the German.
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