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The Swiss minaret ban: Anxieties, unveiled

December 1, 2009 |  6:15 pm

Zurichminaret

When Mutalip Karaademi, a furniture salesman and a Muslim who lives in the northern Swiss town of Langenthal, proposed adding a minaret, or prayer tower, to his local mosque several years ago, he likely had no idea the suggestion would help spark international controversy. After all, the structure he had in mind was only going to be 16 feet tall.

But the plan prompted a backlash among some of Karaademi's non-Muslim neighbors, who said they saw the proposed tower as the symbol of an intolerant religion. And that backlash helped galvanize support for a national referendum, passed on Sunday with 57.5% of the vote, to ban the construction of new minarets across Switzerland.

The new law, which will add a single terse line to the Swiss constitution outlawing the towers -- but says nothing about mosque design more broadly -- has drawn fire from religious leaders and editorial writers alike. ("The irrational fear of Islam has struck once again in Europe," the French paper Liberation said.) But the leaders of the referendum movement are uncowed. One legislator from the right-wing Swiss People's Party, Ulrich Schluer, told The Times after the vote that the minaret "is a political symbol against integration" and represents an effort to establish Sharia, or Islamic law, on European soil.

It's still possible that the Swiss government, concerned that the new constitutional language runs counter to international human rights accords, will work to modify the ban. But one thing is clear: At least for the time being, the minaret has replaced the veil as the dominant symbol of the tense relationship between Islam and the West.

For years, efforts to ban veils or head scarves have roiled European countries, stirring up uncomfortable questions about whether Muslims can -- or want to be -- fully integrated into Western society. Now the focus of that debate has moved to architecture. But the shift marked by the Swiss ban is more than merely a leap from one symbolic realm to another. In attaching their fears of Islamic influence on European culture to the minaret, the Swiss have laid bare the new shape of anti-Muslim anxiety.

If the veil represents a population of Muslim immigrants who strike Europeans as reluctant to fully engage their host countries, or determined to hide their faces behind a blank expression of religious piety, the minaret has prompted a hardened fear: that Muslims are putting down permanent roots in the capitals of old Europe, and marking their presence in ways that strike more than a few voters not just as strange or archaic but threatening.

Clothes are personal and changeable, removable on a whim or change of heart. MinaretposterArchitecture, on the other hand -- even in the age of globalism and multiculturalism -- is among the most prominent ways for societies to announce common, immovable values. For many supporters of the ban passed on Sunday, a minaret is a fixed statement of religious attitudes that they have convinced themselves they can't abide.

Though there are just four minarets in all of Switzerland -- which has about 350,000 Muslim residents, most from Turkey and Kosovo -- for supporters of the ban the towers carry heavy architectural and cultural weight. "The minaret is a symbol of a political and aggressive Islam," another lawmaker from the Swiss People's Party, Oskar Freysinger, told BBC News earlier this year. "The minute you have minarets in Europe it means Islam will have taken over." One prominent anti-minaret poster, right, showed a phalanx of black towers rising like missiles from the red field of the Swiss flag.

But building a minaret in a European city is arguably the opposite of a secessionist or defiant act. When it rises among steeples and chalets in a Swiss alpine village, of course, a minaret is an expression of separation from, and maybe defensiveness against, the dominant culture. But it also signals an interest in joining the mixture of building types that make up any cityscape -- in lining up in public view. If a veil steps back and is silent, a minaret steps forward and has something to say.

On top of that, mosque design historically has tended to be a good deal more flexible and open to cultural influence than other forms of religious architecture. According to Islamic tradition all that’s really needed for a building – or a simple prayer room -- to qualify as a mosque is a marker pointing the way toward Mecca. The diversity of mosque architecture -- and minaret design, for that matter -- through the centuries is remarkable, wide enough to include buildings with Middle Eastern, South American and North African roots.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, many mosque architects in this country and in Europe have responded to the controversy that inevitably surrounds their projects by making sure they offer a blend of Islamic and Western elements. The 2-year-old Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, below, a mosque designed by the American firm Steffian Bradley and the Saudi Arabian architect Sami Angawi, combines a row of peaked arches, an Islamic trademark, with New England-style red brick. If that’s not an assimilation-minded piece of architecture, I’m not sure what is.

Bostonmosque Those conciliatory architectural gestures are more common in America than in Europe, and there are certainly examples in both places of Muslim congregations who have been resistant to adjust the design of their mosques to match local taste. In general, though, mosque design has been one of the few places where Western cities have been able to explore the idea of common ground between their traditions and Muslim ones.

That's one of many reasons the vote in Switzerland is disheartening: because it is a misdirected burst of electoral pique in a country that speaks proudly of its reputation for tolerance and openness. By banning minarets outright instead of moving to restrict their size or style -- or, better yet, to open up a broad debate about how a mosque in a Western city ought to look in an age of Islamic fundamentalism and Muslim immigration -- the Swiss have slipped behind their own veil of mute distrust.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photo credits: Illuminated minaret in Zurich, top, by EPA/Alessandro Della Bella; anti-minaret poster, middle, EPA/SVP; Islamic Society of Boston, bottom, by Joshua Roberts/Los Angeles Times.

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