Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Swiss Minaret Affair: What's going on in Europe?

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Who could be more wicked than those who bar the mention of God's name from [any of] His houses of worship and strive for their ruin, [although] they have no right to enter them save in fear [of God]? (Qur'an 2:114)

This November 29th, a constitutional amendment was passed banning the construction of minarets in Switzerland (you can see the mapped results here). It's a rather bizarre turn of events marking the culmination of a bitter legal battle that began in 2005 over the proposed construction of a 6-meter minaret on top of an Islamic community center in the small municipality of Wangen bei Olten.

The struggle began as a local issue, but as so often happens, it ended up being exploited for political gain by right-wing political parties - namely the nativist/populist Swiss People's Party (SVP) and the Christian conservative Federal Democratic Union of Switzerland. It was the SVP that gathered the signatures needed to force a nationwide referendum on the issue. Below is a poster they used to advertise their campaign, which was banned in a few places due to its inflammatory, hate-mongering nature. The SVP then followed up with a poster saying: "Censorship: One more reason to say yes to the ban." In the name of freedom of expression, then, the architectural expression of Muslims must be curbed. Natürlich!

An SVP poster calling on voters to pass the minaret ban

Really it is worth taking a look at some of the other SVP political posters. Their general formula seems to be 1) aggressive bold letters, 2) the colors black, white and red (the perennial white supremacist favorite) and 3) Switzerland being threatened by dark things.

They gave the lightest hand savage hairy knuckles...
you know, just in case you were thinking it was white.

This - remember - is the party that holds
the most seats in the Swiss parliament.

It is both fascinating and horrifying to see these posters. They are really nothing more than a subtler, more refined (but equally hateful) version of the racist political posters of bygone times - like this famous Australian cartoon decrying Chinese immigration:

"The Mongolian Octopus" by Phillip May, published 1886.
("Mongolian" as in the antiquated supposed racial type)

But back to the minarets.

Something I find quite funny about this whole thing is that the classic Western visual reference to minarets is something thought of as exquisitely beautiful, inspiring dazzling fantasies and pointing to deep love and refined culture... Something which (as we perhaps never thought about all this time) has minarets as arguably its most striking feature:

What would the Taj Mahal be without its minarets?

Justifications given for the Swiss ban range from the utterly hysterical:

If we give them a minaret, they’ll have us all wearing burqas,” said Julia Werner, a local housewife. “Before you know it, we’ll have sharia law and women being stoned to death in our streets. We won’t be Swiss any more.” (Quoted in this obnoxiously written article in The Sunday Times)

to the utterly hysterical:

"Forced marriages and other things like cemeteries separating the pure and impure - we don't have that in Switzerland, and we do not want to introduce it," Ulrich Schlueer, co-president of the Initiative Committee to ban minarets, said. "Therefore, there's no room for minarets in Switzerland." (Quoted in this Aljazeera English article)

The Swiss government, business community, NGOs and and virtually all religious organizations opposed the ban, which has been sharply criticized by UN human rights chief Navi Pillay. Pillay summed the whole charade up fairly accurately as "anti-foreigner scare mongering."

All present in the debate over this are the usual cast of anti-Muslim rhetorical postures - the well-worn polemic about Islam being not actually a religion but a political ideology (quite a convenient position for people claiming to be defending human rights by attacking someone else's freedom of religion!), the "Saudi Arabia oppresses religious minorities so we should too"
gambit - (a.k.a. "when in Rome..."), the "multiculturalism is oppressing me by not letting me oppress people anymore" spiel and so on.


What is interesting to me is just how many parallels there are between the issues Muslims are facing in Europe now and those faced by European Jews of the past.
Dr Herbert Winter, the president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, made an important comment. He said:

As Jews we have our own experience. For centuries we were excluded: we were not allowed to construct synagogues or cupola roofs. We do not want that kind of exclusion repeated.

This sharpened awareness may be part of the reason why Swiss Jewish organizations have opposed the ban so strongly. In the words of a joint press release by the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SIG) and the Platform of Liberal Jews in Switzerland (PLJS) titled No laws creating exceptions! No to the ban on minarets!:

As one of the oldest minorities in Switzerland, the Jewish community is now established and integrated in Swiss society. But precisely because the Jewish community has first hand experience of discrimination, it is committed to active opposition to discrimination and to action in favour of religious freedom and peaceful relations between the religions. This commitment is part and parcel of the Jewish tradition.

European Jews have indeed had a long historical experience of discrimination of all kinds, including with regard to their houses of worship. Restrictions on the height and appearance of Jewish synagogues were common in Europe all the way from the Roman empire until recent times. In many ways, these restrictions were not very different from what is going on today. The point in both cases is to mitigate the visibility of an ethnic/religious minority; at the same time it is an exercise of control and a symbolic subjugation - a way to remind that minority of their place in society (i.e., below white Christians).

Thus we see what happened in early 6th-century Italy when the Jews of Genoa requested to replace their synagogue's roof:

Theodoric granted them permission but warned them not to enlarge the synagogue or to add any kind of adornment. The penalty of these strictures was to be "the king's displeasure."
(p.30 from Early Medieval Jewish Policy in Western Europe)

This was in fact a rather 'generous' threat:

The penalties stipulated in the Theodosian Code for the enlargement or the conspicuous decoration of a synagogue were the confiscation of the building by the government and the transfer of it to the Church. (Ibid.)

Carol Herselle Krinsky, in her book Synagogues of Europe: Architecture, History, Meaning, describes a controversy that arose over proposed repairs to a synagogue in Carpentras, France in the late 18th century:

Litigation dragged on, and authorities investigated charges that the synagogue was taller than several churches. Church authorities wanted the building reduced in height, pointing out that the Jews had sunk to their subordinate station in society through their own fault, and should be obliged to look as lowly as they were. The synagogue's east windows were blocked but later unblocked, the main room was reduced in size, and the authorities ordered the west (bimah) tribune sealed from the rest of the room. (p.241 of Synagogues of Europe: Architecture, History, Meaning)

The same issues were at hand in Russia near the end of the 19th century when Tsar Alexander II famously rejected the initial design for what is now the Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg, saying "Redo the project in more modest dimensions," (see p.134 of People of the City: Jews and the Urban Challenge). Tying things all together is this description of synagogue restrictions in 18th century Poland from Thomas C. Hubka's book Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Community:

Thus synagogues often stood out as respectful but forceful indicators of a major Jewish presence in their expanding Polish communities. Recognition of the synagogue's physical prominence does not ignore the many attempts that church and municipal authorities made to curb Jewish visibility and presence. Many restrictions were imposed on synagogue construction, just as they were on Jewish commercial and domestic building practices in general. For example, many scholars cite the typical municipal requirement that the synagogue's height not rival the height of the Catholic Church as the town's tallest building. (from p.51 of Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Community)

Hubka notes (p.182) that restrictions like this were common not only in Poland but throughout the Jewish diaspora.

In light of this, I feel especially grateful to hear Swiss Jewish leaders like Mr. Winter speaking out about the minaret issue and making the connection - an important one which needs to be made - between the current ban and the hateful bigotry that permeated much of Europe's past (and is increasingly afoot today). The increasingly xenophobic political atmosphere in Europe - where far-right wing parties have been making startling gains - seems in some ways to be bringing Muslim and Jewish communities closer together. I'm reminded of a beautiful example in Scotland earlier this year where members of the Muslim community in Edinburgh offered to help stand guard outside a synagogue after it had been vandalized. The Scottish Islamic Foundation's chairman wrote a letter to a Rabbi from the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation which included these words:

We trust you have adequate security arrangements in place, in line with places of worship across the country. If not, such is our strength of feeling on this matter, we would wish to physically guard the synagogue ourselves.

(In an equally inspiring story, a synagogue in Virginia has opened its doors to Muslims who, because of overcrowding at their mosque, were left with no place to pray on Fridays. They now pray in the synagogue.)


In any event, it does not truly surprise me to see such a ridiculous, transparently xenophobic proposal like this get voted through in Switzerland. It's mildly puzzling perhaps, but not shocking. The fear and loathing of Muslims is for many Europeans a deeply rooted cultural tic, and because of that it makes instinctive sense to many Swiss, French, Danes, or Brits to incline toward a decidedly confrontational political stance toward Islam and Muslims. This trend would normally not be so widespread but for the fact that many European Muslims happen to be immigrants during a time of economic turmoil (one of the SVP's biggest platforms is anti-immigration, after all).

Anti-Muslim rhetoric has become quite politically expedient in recent years, and so has anti-immigration. When these two intertwine, they become a formidable political tool. We saw John Howard play this game masterfully, for a time, in Australia. Sarkozy has been toying with it in France lately. The Freedom Party in Austria dramatically rose to power with it. The BNP continues to reap gains from it in Britain, as does Geert Wilders' party in Holland. The SVP, with the largest share of seats in Switzerland's National Council, seems to be doing just fine with the strategy - and in fact is planning to capitalize on the minaret referendum's success by calling for even more restrictions:

[Adrian Amstutz, parliamentarian and senior member of the People's Party] says his party will reinforce its calls in parliament for further measures to contain the creeping Islamicisation of Swiss society.

"Forced marriages, female circumcision, special dispensation from swimming lessons and the burka are top of the list," Amstutz said, adding that the party was also considering outlawing special Muslim cemeteries.

Party leader Toni Brunner said Muslims who settled in Switzerland had to realise that they could not turn up to work in a head scarf.


I will conclude with a passage (pp. 7-10) from Muhammad Asad's exceptionally great book The Road to Mecca where he reflects on what he sees as the underlying reason behind European anti-Muslim attitudes, recalling a conversation he once had with a friend:

And I went on to tell him of a theory which I had conceived some years ago - a theory that might perhaps help one to understand better the deep-seated prejudice against Islam so often to be found in Western literature and contemporary political thought.

"To find a truly convincing explanation of this prejudice," I said, "one has to look far backward into history and try to comprehend the psychological background of the earliest relations between the Western and the Muslim worlds. What Occidentals think and feel about Islam today is rooted in impressions that were born during the Crusades."

"The Crusades! "exclaimed my friend. "You don't mean to say that what happened nearly a thousand years ago could still have an effect on people of the twentieth century?"

"But it does! I know it sounds incredible; but don't you remember the incredulity which greeted the early discoveries of the psycho­analysts when they tried to show that much of the emotional life of a mature person-and most of those seemingly unaccountable leanings, tastes and prejudices comprised in the term 'idiosyncrasies' - can be traced back to the experiences of his most formative age, his early childhood? Well, are nations and civilizations anything but collective individuals? Their development also is bound up with the experiences of their early childhood. As with children, those experiences may have been pleasant or unpleasant; they may have been perfectly rational or, alternatively, due to the child's naïve misinterpretation of an event: the moulding effect of every such experience depends primarily on its original intensity. The century immediately preceding the Crusades, that is, the end of the first millennium of the Christian era, might well be described as the early childhood of Western civilization...."

I proceeded to remind my friend - himself a historian - that this had been the age when, for the first time since the dark centuries that followed the breakup of Imperial Rome, Europe was beginning to see its own cultural way. Independently of the almost forgotten Roman heritage, new literatures were just then coming into existence in the European vernaculars; inspired by the religious experience of Western Christianity, fine arts were slowly awakening from the lethargy caused by the warlike migrations of the Goths, Huns and Avars; out of the crude conditions of the early Middle Ages, a new cultural world was emerging. It was at that critical, extremely sensitive stage of its development that Europe received its most formidable shock - in modern parlance, a "trauma" - in the shape of the Crusades.

The Crusades were the strongest collective impression on a civilization that had just begun to be conscious of itself. Historically speaking, they represented Europe 's earliest - and entirely successful - attempt to view itself under the aspect of cultural unity. Nothing that Europe has experienced before or after could compare with the enthusiasm which the First Crusade brought into being. A wave of intoxication swept over the Continent, an elation which for the first time overstepped the barriers between states and tribes and classes. Before then, there had been Franks and Saxons and Germans, Burgundians and Sicilians, Normans and Lombards - a medley of tribes and races with scarcely anything in common but the fact that most of their feudal kingdoms and principalities were remnants of the Roman Empire and that all of them professed the Christian faith: but in the Crusades, and through them, the religious bond was elevated to a new plane, a cause common to all Europeans alike - the politico-religious concept of "Christendom," which in its turn gave birth to the cultural concept of "Europe." When, in his famous speech at Clermont, in November, 1095, Pope Urban II exhorted the Christians to make war upon the "wicked race" that held the Holy Land, he enunciated - probably without knowing it himself - the charter of Western civilization.

The traumatic experience of the Crusades gave Europe its cultural awareness and its unity; but this same experience was destined henceforth also to provide the false color in which Islam was to appear to Western eyes. Not simply because the Crusades meant war and bloodshed. So many wars have been waged between nations and subsequently forgotten, and so many animosities which in their time seemed ineradicable have later turned into friendships. The damage caused by the Crusades was not restricted to a clash of weapons: it was, first and foremost, an intellectual damage - the poisoning of the Western mind against the Muslim world through a deliberate misrepresentation of the teachings and ideals of Islam. For, if the call for a crusade was to maintain its validity, the Prophet of the Muslims had, of necessity, to be stamped as the Anti-Christ and his religion depicted in the most lurid terms as a fount of immorality and perversion. It was at the time of the Crusades that the ludicrous notion that Islam was a religion of crude sensualism and brutal violence, of an observance of ritual instead of a purification of the heart, entered the Western mind and remained there; and it was then that the name of the Prophet Muhammad - the same Muhammad who had insisted that his own followers respect the prophets of other religions - was contemptuously transformed by Europeans into "Mahound." The age when the spirit of independent inquiry could raise its head was as yet far distant in Europe; it was easy for the powers-that-were to sow the dark seeds of hatred for a religion and civilization that was so different from the religion and civilization of the West. Thus it was no accident that the fiery Chanson de Roland, which describes the legendary victory of Christendom over the Muslim "heathen" in southern France, was composed not at the time of those battles but three centuries later - to wit, shortly before the First Crusade - immediately to become a kind of "national anthem" of Europe; and it is no accident, either, that this warlike epic marks the beginning of a European literature, as distinct from the earlier, localized literatures: for hostility toward Islam stood over the cradle of European civilization.

It would seem an irony of history that the age-old Western resentment against Islam, which was religious in origin, should still persist subconsciously at a time when religion has lost most of its hold on the imagination of Western man. This, however, is not really surprising. We know that a person may completely lose the religious beliefs imparted to him in his childhood while, nevertheless, some particular emotion originally connected with those beliefs remains, irrationally, in force throughout his later life -­

"- and this," I concluded, "is precisely what happened to that collective personality, Western civilization. The shadow of the Crusades hovers over the West to this day; and all its reactions toward Islam and the Muslim world bear distinct traces of that die-hard ghost...."


No comments:

Post a Comment