The Minaret and Swiss Incivility

The Minaret and Swiss Incivility

Aref Assaf, PhD

Please join in my heartfelt prayer for the Swiss voters who were recently stricken by the curse of Islamophobia.

As a practicing Muslim, I truly do not feel that my faith or its many symbols have been irreversibly attacked by the recent vote to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland. It is a fact that most mosques in Europe and the US have not minarets attached to them- the price we Muslims pay to integrate into non-Muslim societies.

Sorry Switzerland, (and all future copycats), my faith remains intact. I am a Muslim even if my mosque has no minaret or if it is located on the second floor of a rundown gas station. In fact, God hears my prayers from any spot on the earth He created. But I would argue that those who voted for the constitutional amendment have fallen victim to an ignorant, albeit misguided, form of the lemming effect of anti-Muslim immigrant hysteria sweeping most of Europe. The vote was not an innocent expression of the so-called clash of civilizations but rather a clear indication of the lack of civility and xenophobia.

Switzerland has four minarets; the new legislation would block any further construction of the edifice. The country biggest political party, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), had forced the referendum on the government under Swiss electoral regulations allowing a referendum if at least 100,000 signatures are collected on a specific issue.

Attacks on perceived religious symbols of ethnic minorities are not new in Switzerland. And it is not the first time a Swiss popular vote was used to promote religious intolerance. Almost a century ago, a Swiss referendum banned Jewish ritual slaughter in an attempt to drive out its Jewish population.

Who and what is next? Muslim and Jewish cemeteries banned because they pollute the serene and pastoral Swiss landscape? Believe it. According to JTA, a mainstream Swiss political leader is now calling for a ban on separate Muslim and Jewish cemeteries.

We now know that the November 29, 2009 anti-minaret vote cannot be blamed on the myopia of a few. The turnout was high and 57.5 percent of the voters backed the popular initiative introduced by right-wing parties. Support for the ban was also well-distributed across the country. As expected, it was strongest in the small cantons of the hinterland, always the most nationalist and isolationist, but it clearly struck a chord in the psyche of Swiss citizens nationwide. Only a handful of cantons rejected the initiative.

The Swiss people cannot be rejoicing in the fruits of their direct democracy. Their vote has essentially institutionalized legal discrimination against fellow citizens. What makes this outcome particularly offensive and puzzling is that most of the 350,000 Muslims who live in Switzerland, constituting 4.5 percent of the total population, come from Bosnia and Turkey and practice a moderate form of Islam. Islam or its adherents will not disappear from the heart or the skyline of Switzerland.

It is also clear to me that well-integrated Swiss Muslims can only feel wretchedly isolated by this vote by so many of their compatriots, while radical Islamists must be rejoicing at a cause that they can use to garner legitimacy for their violence against acquiescing Muslims and the West. I struggle to see how that is something to be celebrated. It is indeed an outcome calling for divine intervention to limit the spread of the anti-minaret hysteria. I find it easy to believe, as has been widely argued in the European press, that a similar referendum would have produced a ban on minarets in many countries.

This vote shall remain a shameful stain on the land of the Swiss. Racism, intolerance, fear mongering and political expediency fueled the campaign that led to the vote. The Swiss majority is sending a clear message to its Muslim fellow citizens: We do not trust you, and the best Muslim for us is the Muslim we cannot see. But neither the vote or the wishes that precipitated it will not render the Muslim citizens disappear.

The xenophobic motives are the same as for any other form of racism. A group of bad, inferior people who are “threatening our culture and nation” are conjured up so that the racists can exalt themselves. Without being able to say what makes them morally and intellectually unblemished, without ever thinking about what it is that makes their characters and their manner of living so superior, the racists use all the negative and bad things in the image of their enemies to cast themselves in a positive light.

What is important for xenophobes is that they are not “like that” themselves. Racists never bother trying to find out whether the people they have cast in the role of the enemy really are “like that”. They simply assume that they are. Their ideology is hermetical; impenetrable for facts and rational arguments.

The rise of Islamophobia in the West, just like the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, will have the side effect of becoming the best recruiting tool for Muslim extremists. The US and NATO troops in Afghanistan will increasingly have two targets on their backs, the first one as an invader, the second as a “Christian crusader”. This wave of religious intolerance and xenophobia needs to be put in its requisite historical context. The last time far-right parties all across Europe were building popular support for similar themes of racism and intolerance was in the 1930’s, with the Nazis in Germany and the fascists in Italy and Spain.

It’s transparently false to say that the minaret ban is “not a rejection of the Muslim community.” What else could it be?. It is a calculated, symbolic rejection. They did not ban cloisters or mikvehs, after all. And because none of the existing minarets perform the daily calls to prayer, they cannot even say that the measure prevents noise pollution

Opposition to the Swiss vote has been swift and almost universal. Some closet racists, however, almost childishly, labeled the vote as a reprisal for what other Muslim countries have done to restrict Christian missionaries or religious symbols. Chief among these countries, the pundits bring up Saudi Arabia, which severely restricts non-Muslims activities. All I can say here is that the Swiss people should sever their diplomatic relations with the Kingdom instead of disinheriting their fellow citizens of their religious rights. It was fifty years ago when the US banished Japanese Americans in reprisal for their mother country’s attacks on American soil. The internment of Japanese Americans was only recently acknowledged as a national disgrace and a clear example of guilt by association.

Could America be far behind in banning minarets? I doubt such feasibility unless people of conscience and moral compass look the other way whilst evildoers are let loose. There are clearly important variables that differentiate the political, economic and cultural narratives of Europe’s Muslims and American Muslims. Suffice to say that American Muslims are more integrated, more politically empowered than their European counterparts. Combined with a rich interfaith tradition and a different political system, American Muslims will not be so silent when their religious rights are so grossly infringed upon. I will write on this topic in the near future.

But I witnessed firsthand the incessant opposition to building a mosque in Rockaway, NJ in 2009. When a group of Muslims applied for a variance to convert a vacant building into a mosque, a loud and well organized public outcry did not want “terrorists’ to be living in their midst; while others did not want their cherished lifestyle turned into a that of a third world country and still others objected to loss of tax revenues and increased parking and traffic annoyances.

But we all knew that underneath all these pretenses was a hidden agenda aimed at denying fellow citizens the right to worship in a place of their own. I opined that “The tax and traffic concerns, while legitimate, are in reality a clever camouflaging of selfishness, bigotry, and moral contradictions. It bears witnessing the immortal words of Prophet Muhammad: “A man’s faith is never complete until he wishes for his neighbor that he desires for himself.”

Our Constitution was our best defense propelling the town to grant us needed permits to complete the mosque project. Support from non-Muslims was overwhelming and truly exemplary. The mosque has been operational since October, providing a prayer hall for congregants, a classroom for Sunday school, and room for interfaith gatherings—all without a minaret.

I do not have a secret Swiss bank account to close in retaliation. I will still have my omelet with Swiss cheese! And I shall offer a prayer or two to bring the Swiss back to their senses.