Monday, November 30, 2009

A hint of Islamophobia in Switzerland?

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I neglected to comment on this singularly weird bit of news when I heard it yesterday because I simply didn’t know what to make of it. First of all, I trust you know what minarets are, right? … Yeah, I didn’t either until I Googled it. It turns out, that’s what they call those tall, thin spires that are so distinctive to Islamic buildings and mosques, with either cone- or onion-shaped tips. Here’s a representative image:

They’re rather harmless structures, really – I mean, okay, it would be a bad idea to stand next to one should an earthquake strike, perhaps, but I don’t see anything wrong or negative about them. They’re a symbol of Islam as a religion, just as the crucifix is a symbol for Christianity and so on. If anything, I think they look rather good, from an aesthetic, architectural point of view (though they would admittedly look a little incongruous in the midst of a modern urban setting).

But that doesn’t seem to be the case for a majority of Swiss voters, though, seeing as a nationwide referendum – ie. popular vote – has just elected to ban minarets across the country.

Swiss voters have supported a referendum proposal to ban the building of minarets, official results show.

More than 57% of voters and 22 out of 26 cantons - or provinces - voted in favour of the ban.

This was done through a population-driven initiative, so even the courts can’t overrule it. As if this wasn’t unsettling enough, the reasoning behind the vote gets even more lopsided:

The proposal had been put forward by the Swiss People's Party, (SVP), the largest party in parliament, which says minarets are a sign of Islamisation.

The government opposed the ban, saying it would harm Switzerland's image, particularly in the Muslim world.

But Martin Baltisser, the SVP's general secretary, told the BBC: "This was a vote against minarets as symbols of Islamic power."

Look, I certainly am all for banning anything that symbolizes oppression, inequality, bigotry or injustice in any way, shape or form (from the horrid Sharia law to the burqa). But banning minarets simply makes no sense. They are a symbol of Islam itself, not the sign of an invading religion or religious oppression. Claiming that the minaret is a “sign of Islamisation” is no more sensible than accusing every crucifix-adorned Church of engaging in “Christianization”. While I happily engage in the criticizing of silly falsehoods and religious superstition (and encourage others to do the same), I’m not at the point where I’d choose to ban anything that symbolizes or evokes any particular religion. That should be up to the people and believers themselves, in the sense that rather than forcing something to disappear through a vote, we should just let the tide of change run its course until people simply aren’t interested anymore.

Swiss minaret

It’s also interesting to note that there are currently only 4 minarets in existence in Switzerland (including the one featured to the right). It doesn’t exactly sound like they’re becoming a nuisance. There are only about 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland, which accounts for a tiny 5.25% of the country’s population[1]. Hardly a threat by any measure, I’d say.

Even other religious groups are against this ban. Politicians who were for the ban like Oskar Freysinger say that “‘this will in no way change [Muslims’] right to practise their religion, to pray or to gather [in mosques]’”, and that the point behind the ban was to “‘put a safeguard on the political-legal wing of Islam, for which there is no separation between state and religion’”. Agreed, this won’t really change much for Muslims as far as praying and such goes, but it’s still a very peculiar thing to ban something as harmless as minarets for the sake of “separation between state and religion”. I wasn’t aware radical Islam was a growing threat in Switzerland (again, with only 5.25% of the population being Muslim, I doubt there’s any extremist Islamist presence at all).

I think that it’s rather clear, as can be surmised from this nonsensical arguments, that the real reason behind the ban of minarets may very well be no more (or less) than plain ol’ Islamophobia, a dislike towards the slowly growing Muslim minority. Nothing else fits. If this is so, then it’s quite a sad and troubling day, indeed, when the mere presence of a religious minority is enough to rile people up and get them to ban a harmless religious symbol (and, dare I say it, a beautiful piece of architecture).

[1] According to mid-2008 estimations that place the total Swiss population at 7,630,605.

(via Friendly Atheist)
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