ISLAM THE AMERICAN WAY
- Why the United States is fairer to Muslims than "Eurabia" is
ISLAM, THE AMERICAN WAY
AFPIN PITTSBURGH, a Turkish group, pious but peaceful, decides to
rethink its plans for an Islamic centre after an angry public hearing.
In Clitheroe, a town in northern England, a plan to turn an ex-church
into a mosque wins planning approval after seven failed bids. In
Austria a far-rightist, Jörg Haider, grabs headlines by proposing that
no mosques or minarets should be built in the province of Carinthia,
where he is governor. In Memphis, Tennessee, Muslims manage to build a
large cemetery despite local objections to their burial customs.
On the face of it, there is something similar about all these
vignettes of inter-faith politics in the Western world. They all
illustrate the strong emotions, and opportunistic electoral games,
that are surfacing in many countries as Muslim minorities,
increasingly prosperous and confident, aspire to build more mosques
and other communal buildings. All these stories show the way in which
whipped-up fears of a "clash of civilisations" can inflame the humdrum
politics of a locality.
But there is a big transatlantic difference in the way such disputes
are handled (see article). Although America has plenty of
Islam-bashers ready to play on people's fears, it offers better
protection to the mosque builders. In particular, its constitution,
legal system and political culture all generally take the side of
religious liberty. America's tradition of freedom is rooted in the
First Amendment, and its stipulation that "Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
exercise thereof..." Another recourse for embattled minorities of any
kind is "Section 1983" of America's civil-rights legislation, which
allows an individual who is deprived of a legal or constitutional
right to sue the official responsible.
More important than the letter of the law is an ethos that leans in
favour of religious communities which are "new" (to their neighbours)
and simply want to practise their faith in a way that harms nobody. In
America the tone of disputes over religious buildings (or cultural
centres or cemeteries) is affected by everyone's presumption that if
the issue went to the highest level, the cause of liberty would
The European Convention on Human Rights, and the court that enforces
it, also protect religious freedom. But the convention is not central
to European politics in the way the Supreme Court and constitution are
in America. The European court disappointed advocates of religious
liberty when it upheld Turkey's ban on the headscarf in universities.
The risk in the garages
Legal principles aside, there are pragmatic reasons for favouring the
American way. Most mosques in the Western world pose no threat to
non-Muslim citizens; but a few do pose such a danger, because of the
hatred that is preached in them. In such cases police forces generally
have the legal armoury they need to step in and make arrests if
necessary. Quashing extremism will surely be easier in an atmosphere
where the founding and running of mosques is an open, transparent
business. As Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, once said: "It is
not minarets which are dangerous; it is basements and garages which
hide secret places of worship."
Will someone please tell the Swiss? Politicians from two of the
biggest political parties are seeking to insert a sentence into the
country's constitution forbidding the building of minarets. Measures
of this sort exemplify the bigotry that lies behind much of the
opposition to mosque building in Europe. Christians in the West have
long complained about how hard it is for their brethren in Muslim
lands to build churches. Fair enough. But they should practise what
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