Why the Swiss Have Banned Minarets

The Swiss and their minaretsDavid Aikman - OneNewsNow Columnist - 12/10/2009 7:45:00 AM

Listening to all the righteous outrage expressed by liberal and Muslim commentators, you might think that Switzerland had just made a decision to arrest all the country's Muslims or serialize in all national newspapers those Danish cartoons that Muslims consider insulting to Mohammed. But it was nothing of the sort. In a referendum held several days ago, 57.5 percent of the Swiss voted to for a Swiss constitutional ban on the building of minarets attached to the country's mosques.

That decision might have been interpreted as merely an architectural opinion. The Swiss, after all, dislike the disfiguring of the skylines of their historic and ancient cities as much as other Europeans do. Moreover, if minarets started sprouting over the country it might lend the impression that Islam had more historical and cultural influence on the country than Christianity. Swiss cities like Geneva in fact have bans on tall and intrusive structures. But of course the Swiss decision was not an architectural statement. It was a clear expression of disapproval of an immigrant community, namely the country's Muslims, whose lifestyle and views make the Swiss uncomfortable.

At first glance, the minaret ban might appear out of character for the Swiss, who for centuries have provided refuge for Europe's persecuted religious and political minorities and who, by most people's reckoning, are a tolerant and considerate people. But you don't have to be a genius to figure out why the Swiss did what they did. They have watched as more and more Muslim immigrants have taken up residence in Europe and have, with their increasing numbers, sometimes tried to change the nature of their host societies. Europe's Muslims have sometimes campaigned for the introduction of sharia (Muslim religious) law, and they have argued for the need to bring their children up in ways compatible with conservative Islamic societies but out of kilter with Europe's laid-back and modern society.

Yet Europe's Muslims have also made their presence known to Europeans by actions far more frightening than merely wearing conservative Muslim clothing or insisting on the segregation by sex of swimming pools. In Spain and Great Britain, the two most devastating terrorist actions in the last half century were committed respectively in 2004 and 2005, by radicalized Muslims. Even after the 2005 outrages, Muslims demonstrated in London with placards proclaiming that Islam would dominate the world or that those who claimed that Islam was violent should be beheaded. (The demonstrators obviously lacked any sense of irony).

The year 2004 was a particularly bad one for Europe at the hands of Islamic extremists. In addition to the bombs planted on Spanish trains in Madrid, Amsterdam was the scene of a brutal murder of a Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, great-grandson of the brother of the famous artist Vincent van Gogh. Theo, who had made a film denouncing Muslim attitudes towards women, was shot at close range by an enraged Dutch Moroccan and then almost decapitated after the shooting. His assailant plunged a knife into the body of the dead Dutchman with a note attached to it that threatened the murder of two prominent Dutch members of parliament. One fled to the U.S. after this incident and one went into hiding. The Swiss, surely, took note of all this.

It is true, of course, that Switzerland hardly faces cultural obliteration by its Muslim immigrants, who number about 400,000 of a population of 7.8 million. They are predominantly from Turkey and Kosovo, where women for the most part do not wear conservative Islamic dress. But polls conducted in France, Switzerland's closest neighbor, showed that 41 percent of the French people supported the Swiss referendum decision. More interesting was the fact that French President Nicholas Sarkozy waded into the fray, ignoring the tut-tutting against the Swiss among the French chattering classes and even by his own foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner. "Instead of condemning the Swiss out of hand," Sarkozy said, "we should try to understand what they meant to express and what so many people in Europe feel, including people in France." Writing an editorial in the French establishment newspaper Le Monde, Sarkozy said: "What happened has nothing to do with the freedom of religious practice, or freedom of conscience." He said that followers of any religion in Europe ought to "avoid ostentation and provocation" and instead display "humble discretion." The last two words may be a coded way of saying that Muslims ought to adapt to French culture. France has a statutory ban on the wearing of Jewish yarmulkes or Muslim headscarves in French schools.

Perhaps the most cogent comment on the Swiss minaret ban came from a scholar at Oxford University, Tariq Ramadan, a man at least of Islamic background. "Over the past two decades," he said, "Islam has been connected to so many controversial debates, violence, extremism, freedom of speech, gender discrimination, forced marriage, to name a few, it is difficult for ordinary citizens to embrace this Muslim presence as a positive factor."

Difficult indeed. It is certainly not made easier by the hypocritical huffing and puffing of Saudi Arabia. Several religious figures in that country called on Muslims to boycott Switzerland for its alleged religious intolerance. A pity they didn't mention the fact that Saudi Arabia itself is one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world and will not permit a single house of worship of any other religion on Saudi soil. It regularly arrests Saudis suspected of having attended clandestine Christian services and upholds the ancient Islamic principle that apostasy should be punished by death. By contrast, a decision to ban minarets seems like very small potatoes.