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Hisham Wyne

Hisham Wyne

Posted: December 1, 2009 04:01 PM

Minarets? No Thanks, We're Swiss

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57.7 percent of Swiss citizens have voted to disallow the building of minarets. Minarets are those stern cylindrical structures intrinsic to Islamic architecture, and they are usually attached to mosques -- places of worship where Muslims commune with Allah, and presumably complain about Swiss intolerance.

Actually, a correction. Not 57.7 percent of the Swiss, but 57.7 percent of those individuals who cared enough about the issue to actually submit a proposition on it one way or the other. In short, individuals who had a vested interest in either standing for minarets (pun intended), or a point to make by opposing them.

The nay-voters may of course have had several passable reasons for opposing minarets. As far as structures go, minarets are not very neutral – possibly making them passé in the land of socio-political ambivalence. Perhaps it is a gender issue, with the neo-feminists swinging the vote. Minarets can be so patriarchal -- almost phallic, really.

Perhaps it was concern for zoning laws. With their no-nonsense search for altitude and carefully construed domes, there is no mistaking a minarets’ sense of physical purpose. And if Florence can have strict zoning laws to preserve heritage, why should those erstwhile Swiss cantonments be less deserving?

Perhaps it was aesthetics. The Swiss felt that importing design cues from the deserts of Saudi Arabia might instill Geneva with too abrupt a sense of surrealist juxtaposition. Yet to balk at surrealism, in a land that invented the cuckoo clock and juxtaposed it with expertise in dark chocolate, is a bit much.

All arguable reasons. But the ban against minarets is for none of the above. It is rather a shot across Muslim immigrant bows, telling them their presence is not appreciated. The posters published by the Swiss People’s Party to popularise their stance showed a veiled woman with a backdrop of minarets, imposed on a colonized Swiss flag.

In the context of a Europe creeping towards old bad habits of intolerance, with a ban of veils in France, right wing anti-immigrant parties gaining strength in Denmark and Belgium, a xenophobic Northern League part of Berlusconi’s coalition and cartoons of questionable humour coming out of Denmark, there is a pastiche of confrontation and marginalization -- with Muslims the Continent's new resented underclass. Fascism has found a happy home in Europe before, and there are days when it appears contemporary Europe suffers nostalgia for that odious house guest.

In counterpoint, several Muslim countries have laws that make the Swiss look benign. In Saudi Arabia, synagogues and churches are outlawed. Other faiths are banned from operating in Islam’s birthplace. In Pakistan, the Christian minority is discriminated against constitutionally. But is Saudi Arabia, with its curious mix of suspicion, self-pity and bellicose intolerance a country anyone would want to emulate? Especially if one happened to be Europe’s oldest democracy?

The Swiss have carefully folded their habit of neutrality and put it away. They have taken a stand – finally. It is unfortunate that this newfound sense of social purpose reeks of xenophobia and discrimination. It is a counter-revolution against a Muslim revolution that never occurred.  Muslims in Switzerland are mostly from secular Turkish and Bosnian heritages and have assimilated reasonably well. They do not spontaneously combust, and tend to avoid conflict. The Swiss system of mass democracy may be very egalitarian. But it would be nice if the Swiss could do something constructive with it -- such as galvanizing it to crack down on those absurd bird-regurgitating clocks.  



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