Palm Beach Gardens FL–The freedom to express symbols in the place of worship is an important part of religious rights guaranteed by all democratic societies. Now, Switzerland has one thing in common with Saudi Arabia.
The Swiss referendum vote to ban erection of minarets is reminiscent of Saudi Arabia’s banning of church buildings. The Saudis do not mind Christians conducting worship services in school buildings but they do not tolerate church buildings. There is a strange parallel here: banning minarets in a country that celebrates diversity and banning church buildings in a country that celebrates cultural purity.
The Swiss vote was a result of fear rather than hate. This judgmental decision on Islamic architecture reflects society’s fear of a growing Muslim minority in the land of William Tell. The anxiety is not irrational or unique; Europe and the wider Western world worry about changing Muslim demographics and mobilize ethnocentric politics. While anxiety about integration of Muslim minorities in Western society is understandable, regressive policies to force integration of minorities or to slow immigration of foreigners will backfire. Provoking the hesitant immigrant reinforces his/her isolation.
To facilitate social integration, the host country must understand the culture of its minorities and respect their sentiments. Muslim immigrants are much attached to their religion, and why not. For Muslims, especially their migrants, religion may also be a way of life. Banning minarets in Western mosques would risk alienating Muslims from larger society in adopted countries.
The newly introduced minaret policy is problematic in more ways than imagined. The policy is provocative to the global Muslim community, is in violation of European sentiments on long standing religious freedoms and works against Western interests in the Muslim world.
Minarets are powerful symbols to all Muslims, even to the many adherents who do not habitually visit mosques. The result of this referendum is seen an act of cultural suppression, a slap in the face.
The Arabic word for Minaret is Mi’zana, which means tower for calling the faithful to prayer. The minaret is the equivalent of the church altar for Christians. In a sense, the Mi’zana is symbolically the face of the mosque.
The banning of minarets sends a special message of rejection to the tens of millions of European Muslims. The ban of this symbol adds the minaret to an expanding list of Islamic codes that evoke limitless debate in Europe. Europe is moving on an obsessive track of debate over non substantial issues: the veil, the Danish cartoon, the minaret and who knows what next? Xenophobic politicians and media anchors that lust for emotionally divisive issues have now a new story to spin, the minaret.
The social context is relevant in this story. Five percent of the Swiss are Muslim; Most Swiss Muslims are partially or fully naturalized refugees from the Balkans. They are largely of a secular mindset. Switzerland is the seat the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, UNHCR, and the United Nations Human Rights Commission, UNHRC. Switzerland is among the leading nations in religious tolerance and respect for human rights. The result of this referendum is at odds with the Swiss culture of tolerance.
The West works hard to secure military presence in the Middle East and elsewhere on Muslim territories. Western governments search with diligence for new ways to win the hearts and minds of Muslims in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The West invests heavily in public diplomacy to create a culture of exchange and understanding with Arabs and Muslims. Banning minarets in the heart of Europe undermines the strategic Western interests in the Muslim world.
Identity building promotes security and is the foundation of integration. Minarets are “flags” of identity that should enhance social integration rather than impede it.
The West must continue to honor its high standards of respect for religious diversity. Minarets are not threatening but banning them may have that effect. This ban will soon be challenged within Swiss society and by the European Union.