originally published June 16, 2012
Remember a few years ago, when radical Muslims were planning to build a mosque / terrorist training center right across the street from Ground Zero, with the expressed intent of burning American flags in the front lobby and cranking “Death To America (DJ Abdulisco Funktronic Remix)” on loudspeakers each July 4? Remember how right-wing American media distorted what was actually going on until they were about as accurate as what I just described? Well, leave it to the Swiss to take xenophobia one step further, and stamp it down as legislation.
The Minaret Controversy in Switzerland may come as a shock to those of you who thought the Swiss were a quaint, peaceful, neutral folk with a penchant for making watches, issuing handy, pocket-size multi-tools to their army officers and dressing like this to protect the Pope:
Just over 400,000 Muslims call Switzerland home; that’s roughly one in twenty people. Not a bad representation for the heart of Europe. To my knowledge, there has not been any recorded terrorist attack, suicide bombing, or declaration of militant hatred against the Swiss government by a local Muslim group. Yet for whatever reason, it is illegal to build one of these in the country:
That’s the Ahmadiyya Mosque in Zurich. It’s not illegal to build a mosque in Switzerland, but specifically a minaret – that’s the tall spire that pops up as an architectural bobble on mosques all over the world. The minaret has a practical purpose; on hot days it can provide natural ventilation in non-air-conditioned buildings. It also serves as a visual signifier to Muslims that some holy stuff is going on inside. Think of it as the Islamic equivalent of that big gaudy cross you see outside churches, or Oprah’s logo on the cover of a book.
So why can’t you build one in Switzerland?
It started in the little town of Wangen bei Olten. The Turkish cultural association decided in 2005 that they wanted to build a six-meter minaret on top of their Islamic community center. We’re not talking about a huge, garish monstrosity, just a twenty-foot tower that makes the building look like something more than a transitory box. In fact, it’s hard to see much difference between something like this:
And the Lighthouse Restaurant at Haulover Park in Dade County, Florida.
A group of local residents banded together to stop this from happening. The Communal Building and Planning Commission rejected the association’s application for construction. Undeterred, the Turks appealed to the Building and Justice Department and won. Oh well, it’s just a little tower, right? The haters tried to shut it down and failed, no big deal. Except they weren’t done.
The case went to the Swiss Federal Supreme Court.
This attracted the attention of the Swiss People’s Party. Like the Republicans, they are the right-wing conservative group which claims to act on behalf of the ‘common’ people. Whether they actually do this, or whether they aim to provide tax cuts to their wealthiest citizens and declare that Ronald McDonald is an actual person, I’m not sure. But they held power in 2005, and they jumped all over this minaret-scapade.
The Egerkingen Committee (named after the town of Egerkingen, not after an especially ambitious royal leader) was formed, consisting of members of both the Swisspublicans mentioned above and the Federal Democratic Union (or the ultra-right, fundamentalist Christian, Tea-Partyish gang). After failing to get support at the municipal or canton level, the Egerkingens launched a national campaign to garner support.
In Switzerland, if you can get 100,000 signatures on an initiative, it’ll show up as a nation-wide referendum. The Egerkingens claimed that minarets are not mentioned in the Qur’an, nor do they have any specific religious meaning. This is technically true; it only functions as a comforting beacon to local Muslims. But in the Egerkingen perspective, they are a dangerous symbol of religious/political power claims.
Posters were drawn up. Like any campaign, its most passionate backers wanted to deliver their message with a maximum visual impact, so they decided to show a Muslim woman standing in front of a skyline of minarets, popping up from the Swiss flag like… oh, I don’t know… MISSILES!
The feminist population – well, some of them – supported the ban. They pushed the oppression of women in Islamic societies as a reason to ban the minarets, as though the erection of this twenty-foot tower would somehow drain the rights and freedoms of women within a three-block area.
This is where the argument truly breaks down. These people, the Egerkingens, the RepubliSwisses, the feminists, they aren’t rallying against pretty tubes of concrete. They are offended by the religion itself, or the portion of the religion that scares them or upsets them the most.
The ban also received support from the Society of St. Pius X, an international traditionalist Catholic organization that happens to be headquartered in Menzingen, Switzerland. They stressed that the Vatican supports tolerating a person’s religion, but does not support tolerating an ideology that is “incompatible with Christian tradition.” So they’re okay with you worshipping whatever you want, but if they get the chance to actually crush what you worship, it’s go-time.
In the spring of 2009, the Swiss Federal Assembly recommended by a majority of 132-51 that the people of Switzerland vote against the ban. That’s even with the right-wing leadership, the government still felt this was a bad idea. The Swiss Bishops Conference, a group representing Catholic bishops, opposed the ban. Legal experts, minority-rights organizations, the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities – they all wanted the people to do the sensible thing, and let go of their hang-ups over a friggin’ vertical cylinder.
In November, 2009, it went to a public vote. The Swiss people voted with a 57.5% majority to ban minarets from their country. The four existing minarets in Switzerland – including the one at Wangen bei Olten, which started this whole mess and was erected earlier in 2009, just in time – were allowed to stand, but no new minarets can be built.
A number of politicians and political parties around Europe supported the ban, including French President Nicholas Sarkozy. A few nations, like Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands, are considering a similar referendum. For the most part, the world wasn’t pleased with the Swiss. Gaddafi called for a Jihad in Switzerland (probably an over-reaction), and Sweden officially gave their thumbs-down. The UN Human Rights Council condemned the ban as a defamation of religion.
People – including, apparently, the Swiss – need to relax. Radical Islam is dangerous, absolutely, but radical Christianity is as well. Just look at the state of political discourse in the US over the past 15 years. Like Christianity, the majority of Islam’s followers are peaceful people who just want a place to worship, and maybe a familiar indicator of that place that they can see from a block away.
Me, I’m intrigued by the Catholic-Jedi thing up there. I wonder if there’s something for us Jews.