Tuesday, 1 December, 2009

Minarets in Switzerland

This poster was part of a national campaign in Switzerland, leading to a referendum on whether minarets should be banned. 3 in 5 Swiss voted for a ban.

Direct? Yes. Democracy? No. Dangerous? The Swiss, with a cross on their flag, must be cuckoo to send out a message as communal as this.

PS: Neither of my three Muslim women classmates observe purdah, though one wears the hijab. Wonder how many Muslim ladies in Switzerland observe the purdah. More importantly, why are some Swiss so bothered about what other Swiss wear? I thought only religious fundamentalists bothered about those things, not secular citizens.

PPS: Sarkozy, in a front-page editorial in Le Monde, said, "Instead of condemning the Swiss, we should try to understand what they meant to express and what so many people in Europe feel, including people in France. Nothing could be worse than denial."

Well, I can think of one thing that's worse. Not condemning the Swiss for gross religious rights violation. Why should understanding them prevent anyone from condemning them? If a policeman understands why a thief is stealing, does he have to let the crime continue?

PPPS: On 15 December, Haig Simonian wrote in the FT (in an article titled Swiss way of life no longer offers passport to harmony), "Last month's referendum to ban minarets was a classic own goal: the country only has four such buildings, and the small and unzealous Muslim community is hardly clamouring for more." (Emphasis mine.) The author is well-meaning, but either completely ignorant or unconsciously racist. Otherwise why does he think only zealous Muslims want minarets in their mosques? Do you have to be a fundamentalist Christian to have a belfry in your church?

Still more: On 16th December, this letter appeared in the FT. I have highlighted the portions I want to discuss: " Sir, Haig Simonian eloquently analyses some of the problems that Switzerland has recently grappled with, including the "own goal" of the recent ban on minaret construction ("Swiss way of life no longer offers passport to harmony", December 15).

Politicians and commentators across Europe and beyond have widely bashed the Swiss for taking the decision, which is indeed regrettable and inconsistent with the long-standing humanitarian values of our country. Muslim leaders have also condemned the Swiss verdict, despite incomparably more constraint personal and religious freedoms in their own countries.

However, rather than a weakness of our political system, as Mr Simonian argues, I think that voters having a chance to express their frustrations – whatever they may be – should be seen as a strength. We may not like the outcome and some damage to Switzerland's image may have been done, but at least Swiss voters feel that their views are taken seriously and actually make an impact, even if giving the government a massive headache.

In the longer term, it may well prove healthier and more productive to discuss openly and address anti-Muslim feelings rather than deny they may be present in a large part of the population, as is the practice in most of Europe.

Longer-term social harmony does not mean always just being nice to each other, but instead occasionally requires addressing any ill feelings, however embarrassing they may be. It was unfortunate that the discussion could take place only on the back of a regrettable decision.

However, at the risk of being called naive, I think that following a largely fair and constructive discussion, social harmony in Switzerland will ultimately be strengthened – and the minaret construction ban be scrapped.

Beat Siegenthaler, London SW11, UK

Mr Siegenthaler is surely a fellow liberal, so I do not want to be harsh to him, but two points are worth making.

First, he assumes 'anti-Muslim feelings are present in a large part of the (white) population' all over Europe. As per him, it is impossible that people may just keep their noses out of each other's lives. There has to be ill will for the 'other'. There is no smoke, but there must be a fire, because I believe there is one.

Second, he assumes that occasionally addressing ill feeling will lead to social harmony. Does it? If it does, such discussion has to be infinitely more civilised and open-minded than this indefensible ban. This ban doesn't invite dialogue; it signals the rejection of any possibility of dialogue.

Besides, is social harmony so desirable a thing that we must quarrel for it? Won't social neutrality do? Do we have to understand and appreciate each other? Can't we just let people be?

And is it not possible that my hate for a person has nothing to do with him and everything to do with me? Shouldn't I get my head checked?

Third, I'm most interested in knowing which Muslim leaders from regressive countries criticised the Swiss decision. My guess is that Mr Siegenthaler has got countries and religions muddled up. A Muslim leader in, say, UK, cannot be held responsible for lack of religious freedom in, say, Saudi Arabia, can he? In his country, UK, there is religious freedom, and he has every right to shame the Swiss for their bigotry.


Arya Chatterjee said...

The thing is that the minrets seem to spoil the nature of the locality - just like there are zoning laws in varius cities so is this a county wide zoning law. Just like you can't build whatever you like in new York city, so also you cAn't build whateer you like in switzerland

N&P said...

There is a vast difference between forbidding a certain construction - church, mosque, temple, hospital, school - in a certain locality and banning it all over a country.