Swiss vote to ban minarets a warning to Europe’s Muslims

Dec 1st, 2009 | By | Category: Signs of the Times (click on article name)

Swiss vote to ban minarets a warning to Europe’s Muslims

By Charles Lewis, National Post

Protest Signs

Protest Signs

The vote to ban minarets in Switzerland warns Muslims to pay more heed to local sensibilities, while highlighting the larger problem of Europe’s failure to integrate immigrants, experts say.

“This is an unfortunate exhibition of Islamophobia,” said Amila Buturovic, associate professor of religious studies at York University in Toronto.

“As a Bosnian Muslim I think this is another way of saying that Islam is not a European reality. But Islam has been in the Balkans for 500 years and it is not a European novelty.”

On Sunday, 57.5% of Swiss voters approved the ban, a complete reverse of what polls showed only two weeks before.

In the interim, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party intensified its campaign, arguing the minaret was a symbol of Islamic political power and had nothing to do with the free exercise of religion.

Rather, Prof. Buturovic said, this triggered people’s latent prejudices — Switzerland, and Europe as a whole, consider “diversity an attack on national identity.”

In her view, the campaign touched on European paranoia about being taken over by outsiders.

“The Swiss campaign played on people’s fears,” added Professor John Bowen, a specialist on Muslim integration in Europe.

“Just look at the posters that were used, with images of minarets, burkas and missiles. It was a phony association. The minarets have nothing to do with terrorism or political Islam or the maltreatment of women.”

Prof. Bowen, who teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., said he was not surprised the Swiss would approve the ban because they remain insular and conservative. For example, women have only been able to vote in federal elections since 1971.

“They’re [really] saying: we don’t like this stuff and we’re unhappy with the change in appearance of our cities and our people.”

Last year, a Pew Forum poll found 52% of Spanish and 50% of German respondents rated Muslims unfavorably, compared with 38% in France. The poll did not look at Switzerland.

It also found rising prejudice against Jews was tied to rising prejudice against Muslims.

After Sunday’s vote, far-right political parties across Europe praised the results. In Belgium, the Vlaams Belang said it would submit a decree to the Flemish regional parliament that would allow authorities to ban buildings that would “damage their surroundings’ existing cultural identity.”

In Italy, Roberto Calderoli, a member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition, said, “Switzerland is sending us a clear signal: yes to bell towers, no to minarets.”
However, the Vatican was quick to condemn the Swiss vote.

Prof. Bowen, author Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space, said he opposed the French ban of headscarves in schools, but at least there was a rational argument for it.

“There’s a good argument to be made saying burkas are bad for civil life. It’s reasonable to say the nature of social interactions has to do with exchanges and civilities,” he said.

“It’s not a stupid argument, but I don’t agree with it. But no similar argument could be made about banning minarets. And that’s probably why so many people told the pollsters they were voting against it — because it’s so stupid. There is no argument that this is a real problem having these minarets unless they were worried abut parachutists.”

Peter Mandaville, co-director of the Center for Global Studies at George Mason University in Virginia, said although the Swiss vote jibes with broad increases in anti-Muslim sentiment in the past five years, he was surprised at the strength of the reaction.

Muslims in Switzerland make up just 4% of the population and are mainly from Turkey and Bosnia. As a result, Prof. Mandaville said, they “tend to be far more moderate and less inclined to make a political issue of their religious identity.”

Father Dan Madigan, a Jesuit priest who taught about inter-religious dialogue between Muslims and Christians in Rome, said Europe has a low tolerance for anything “that may seem to upset the social order.”

Europeans often have a “sense of a monoculture whereas in North America we always think that people come from somewhere else.

“They’re caught in a problem. They need immigration to fill their labour pool and maintain their populations. They’re just not very good at making outsiders feel welcome.”

National Post
clewis@nationalpost.com

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