The Fear of Minarets

The Swiss government’s ban on Mosque minarets says a lot to me.  Along with the propaganda campaign (pictured above), I feel there is no other way to put it:  this is Islamophobia — shameless, ugly, unapologetic, and in-your-face.  Either fear makes the imagination run wild or minarets are really missiles in disguise.

It is clear the Orientalist imagery in the posters intend to arouse fear that, somehow, Switzerland is not very far from becoming “Islamized,” a term which is equated with “Talibanization,” i.e. militants roaming the streets, women forced to wear burqas, and implementation of a radical ideology.  In respect to minarets, it apparently did not take a long time for the Swiss government to violate its so-called “policy of neutrality” and choose to jump on the Islamophobia bandwagon.  Out of the 150 Mosques in the country, only 4 actually have minarets and only 2 were planned for construction.  I guess some Jack Bauer-wannabe “saw it coming” – “it” being “Islamization” and, um, the “end of Western civilization” as we know it!  All because of 4 (potentially 6) minarets.

There is already a lot of commentary about this throughout the internet/blogosphere.  Many, if not all, of the commentators agree that this ban is fuelled by fear.  Tariq Ramadan elaborated in his article:

Swiss Muslims have their share of responsibility but one must add that the political parties, in Europe as in Switzerland have become cowed, and shy from any courageous policies towards religious and cultural pluralism. It is as if the populists set the tone and the rest follow. They fail to assert that Islam is by now a Swiss and a European religion and that Muslim citizens are largely “integrated”… We cannot blame the populists alone – it is a wider failure, a lack of courage, a terrible and narrow-minded lack of trust in their new Muslim citizens.

Ramadan makes a point that I always try to echo whenever I engage in inter-faith and/or intercultural dialogue.  Islam is a universal religion; it is a Swiss religion, a European religion, an American religion, and so on.  Muslims are not limited to their religious identity, no matter how important it is in their daily lives; they have multiple identities like everyone else.  I’ve stated this so many times on my blog and I apologize to my regular readers who may be tired of reading this but I am a Muslim, I am an American, I am a Pakistani, I am a South Asian, I am a writer, I am a son, I am a brother, and the list goes on!

In my opinion, this is a new concept that all Western societies, not just Switzerland, have a difficult time understanding.  President Obama talks and even stated that Islam is an American religion, but words alone cannot change the realities.  Even though I highly doubt the United States would ban the building of minarets, Islamophobia is very present and it is growing.  Racial profiling, which Obama promised to end, still occurs and anti-Muslim hate crimes still persist.  CAIR recently released its annual report on civil rights concerning Muslim-Americans and it revealed that Islamophobic incidents are on the rise. The ban on minarets in Switzerland may not exist in other non-Muslim majority countries, but I believe it is analogous to the wider problem of Islamophobia that Western nations face.

In the discussion taking place about this subject, I’ve noticed that some non-Muslims have tried to deflate the issue by pointing out that Muslim majority countries like Saudi Arabia would not allow the building of Churches.  My reaction is: why mention Saudi Arabia when this is about Switzerland?  Simply because we are Muslims?  Muslims cannot be Swiss, American, British, French, Canadian, or Danish?  When people draw such comparisons, it serves one purpose: to discredit and negate the experiences of those who are facing discrimination.  Put it like this:  If a Muslim gets beat up in America and reports it as a hate crime, imagine the police officer saying, “well, hey, Christians are discriminated against in Muslim countries, so sorry, I can’t do anything for you!”  That is essentially what those arguments say.

It all makes me question why fear of Islam and Muslims perpetuates.  I strongly believe much of it is rooted in racism and xenophobia.  A 2008 Gallup Poll survey revealed that Muslim-Americans are “the most racially diverse religious group in the United States,” with White-Americans making up 28%, African-Americans 35%, Asian-Americans 18%, and other races 18%.  However, Muslims are typically thought to be ethnically, racially, and culturally different than the dominant culture in Western societies. Christianity and Judaism, like Islam, both originated in the Middle-East, but they are generally not perceived as “foreign” or “alien” (even though Jesus and the other Prophets, peace be upon them all, were Middle-Easterners).  No one stigmatizes a White Christian because White Christians  “look like everyone else,” i.e. the dominant culture.  Muslims, on the other hand, tend to look “different” — they speak, dress, worship, and live “differently,” therefore fear and suspicion is “justified.”

Mosques?  Aren’t those things only found in the Middle-East?  Islam an American/European religion?  How can that be?  Isn’t Islam an Arab religion and aren’t Muslims anti-Western?  Such stereotypes exist in the minds of too many people, including professors, authors, business owners, store managers, politicians, and so on.  The more Muslims are treated like “cultural outsiders,” the more challenging it is to feel accepted.  Muslims are already integrated in Western societies, the problem is that we are not acknowledged, recognized, and in many cases, such as in Switzerland, we are not granted our religious rights.

Jonathan Freedland wrote a powerful commentary about the Swiss ban from a Jewish perspective.  He writes:

It’s a crude reaction but it’s the first one I had on hearing that the Swiss had voted to ban the building of minarets on mosques – the same reaction I have to the increasingly-frequent stories like it: how would I feel if this were not about them, but us? How, in other words, would I react if this latest attack were not on Muslims but on Jews?… With horror, of course… What passionate secularists and atheists need to understand is that what seems to outsiders like a religious affiliation is, for many millions, only partly about faith. It’s often partly, even largely, about identity. How can I be so sure that’s true of Muslims? Because I know it’s true of Jews.

Hatred, racism, and/or prejudice against an entire group of people is the most dangerous when it is acceptable.  The Islamophobic ads posted in the streets of Switzerland eerily recall days of Nazi propaganda used against Jews and the ban on minarets represents the complicity and fading consciousness of the government — and perhaps the world.

4 thoughts on “The Fear of Minarets

  1. Great post! Thank you for raising this topic which is just starting to make its way into my reading world. I was glad to have the reference to Ramadan’s and Freedland’s articles as I hadn’t come across either.

    I was particularly struck by the sentence prior to the ones you cited from Ramadan: “…[Muslims] have to be positively visible, active and proactive within their respective western societies.” This seems to me invaluable advice, and the only way to be “not Other”. It also seems to represent well what you do, Jehanzeb, in a variety of ways.

    I do think that a dimension was left out of the discussion by Ramadan and Freedland of the important, crucial idea of identity, and that is the role of the economy and immigration as bait by (far) right wing parties. The UDC in Switzerland has gradually been gathering prominence on a general anti-immigration platform, one with increasing appeal in an economic downturn.

    That the newly immigrated Muslims, most from Eastern Europe, provide a convenient scapegoat has a dual dimension: Other by being immigrants; and Other by religion. The fact that they look European, dress in European styles, and are in fact Europeans is inconsequential to this type of fear-mongering that plays on stereotypes of the more minority Turkish and North African Muslims in Switzerland. Indeed, the double minaret is a more Eastern (Turkish, Ottoman) style of mosque.

    It is important to remember that Switzerland was a place of “guest workers” not immigrant workers. The guests were required to leave when the work was finished, and so the non-European Muslim population of Switzerland is very low, and very much integrated–often by marriage as is the case of a Moroccan cousin-in-law. In other words, this “cause” provides a platform for fear mongering when even the grains of truth, that there are Muslims who are Other in Switzerland, are in picograms.

  2. I enjoyed reading this post and agree with the points raised. In addition to what you’ve mentioned, and what Tariq Ramadan mentioned in his article, we should notice how far right-wing propaganda has been served in this case in such hatred way so it was not about democracy as I elaborated over my post few days ago and you’re welcome to check it.

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