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The Swiss minaret ban: Anxieties, unveiled

December 1, 2009 |  6:15 pm


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.

Comments () | Archives (117)

Great Post! Hope the ban gets repealed by their supreme court!

Disheartening? More like ballsy. "irrational fear of Islam?"-Name me another religion crashing planes into buildings. Wake up.

On the surface the Swiss decision seems a bit extreme. How about this: the Muslim countries allow Christian churches unfettered access including symbolism. A church with a cross in the middle of Arabia. Then I may critisize the Swiss for their decision. I'm actually surprised those that condemn the Swiss haven't offered this compromise.

This is rather odd, Muslims upset over a ban on their towers.

I read an article about how restrictive Muslim countries are on the churchs of other faiths. It seems odd that they demand more respect for Islam then they are willing to give to any other religion!

You have no right to demand from others, what your not willing to give to others!

This article is wonderfully liberal, tolerant and accepting. It is also timid, weak and fearful of all potential consequences. Violence is certainly one of those consequences. The author is even afraid to mention that.

Mr Hawthorne poses some rethorical questions, and some convoluted statements that pretend to make us believe he is by all means such a liberal that he can't fully understand the concerns of the citizens of this country that have valid issues such as full integration with the Swiss. "If a veil steps back and is silent..." Cute but lousy prose. As well, "If that's not an assimilation-minded piece of architecture..." Oh really? So you add red bricks and voila, Muslims have assimilated...puhleezz...

Joseph Davidovic

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,"

Were you aware that there are only about 8 millions Swiss - including the 350,000 mostly fully integrated Muslim residents and that the Swiss are mostly judaeo-christian in heritage? I believe the majority of Swiss welcome those who choose to integrate themselves into society, learn the local language, get jobs rather than benefits - they are much less keen on inviting those who choose to accept the benefits of living in Switzerland but require it to fund & adapt to their preferences. Traditionally the Turks did the jobs the Mexicans might do here, and Kosovo was a source of refugees... neither places typically bring to mind low birth rates nor massive wealth.
There are some right wing nut jobs in all european countries but this vote wasn't about racism, opposing mosques, nor about opposing people having whatever religion they want to hold - it was about where the majority want a line drawn in a society where tourism is of huge importance and the culture and population are undergoing rapid change and it is very evident that many people wish to hold themselves apart retaining their cultural identity as foreigners within Switzerland but with all the benefits of being Swiss residents or even citizens. The old Swiss are often less than keen to adapt to these new Swiss and this is understandable. I think mosques and religion are ok. I think political extremists of all shades are not at all ok - and so the vote was the right thing to do - even though it has precipitated uninformed & shrieking criticisms.

Hummm, must be going to ban the ol christian bell tower next huh ?

It is a blow on the face of european freedom. Zionism,christionism and Hiduism feel Islam a threat to them ,Although Islam is the religion of brotherhood,equality and justice.The so called Swiss opponents of Islam may visit the Muslim dominated countries where all the Churches and Temples are oprating their religious services freely with their Cross towers and tempes. Islam is a reality , it is flourishing and will...

I am so happy that the people of Switzerland has spoken out, not only for themselves but for the rest of us!

Democracy is Government by the People for the People. As much as the media and the political elite like to think they have a monopoly on the political truth, and they arrogantly believe they have the license to tell us what and how to think, the People of Switzerland has resisted the tyranny of the political class who is in collusion with Islam.

The precise reason for democracy is that the elite does NOT know best. On the issue of Islam, the elite across the western world REFUSE to recognize the threat that the rise of Islam poses to tolerance and liberalism in the west: values that Islam exploits in order to undermine, as we have witnessed throughout the Islamic world where non-Muslims everywhere are persecuted from Nigeria to Sudan to Pakistan to Indonesia. Islam is not merely a religion. Islam is seen by its believers as the "ultimate truth" that also prescribes an economic and political system. Islam is not a "personal faith". Islam is not Christianity. There is no separation between religion and state in Islam, as Muslims themselves have repeatedly testified. This is the reason why Muslims have repeatedly demanded implementation of Sharia in western countries, whereas no Hindu or Sikh or Buddhist demands special treatment, and why NOBODY in the west have any problems with the followers of these religions.

For years, the People in the western world have watched with frustration that our democratic powers have been eroded, with politicians re-interpreting democracy to mean (as in the case of the European Union) "hold as many votes as is necessary until the predetermined outcome is achieved, thereafter, no more votes are to be held." Every attempt by the People to change the course of this runaway train, to salvage our societal values have been met with smug arrogance by those in power. The People have had enough!

I have spent hours reading comments on various newspapers from different countries and different languages since the result of this Swiss referendum. I am not surprised by the media spin. It is clear as the light of day that the overwhelming mood of the People is that not only are we NOT angry with Switzerland, we are all very enthralled that this little Alpine country still hold true to the sacred principle of Government by the People for the People. In holding this referendum, and in rejecting its political elite, Switzerland has put us all to shame. We envy the Swiss!

There was no bombing in Switzerland, there was no terrorist attack but still these white thugs hate Muslims so much that they want to do Genocide of Muslims as they did to Jews. Muslims must learn to hate from these whites. These White Christians are destroying so many Muslim countries but still Muslims have so much tolerance for them they sale their oil, They use their dollar. There is no ban on Christians in Muslim countries. Learn to hate people.

"I read an article about how restrictive Muslim countries are on the churchs of other faiths. It seems odd that they demand more respect for Islam then they are willing to give to any other religion!"

I don't understand, are you saying that we should try to be like those countries? Whatever happened to leading by example and principle? I don't know what reason for this ban is worse: religious and cultural ignorance or a poor attempt at a tit-for-tat strike against a nebulous 'enemy.'

Studies have shown that measures such as this, that can be construed as cultural humiliation, drive more toward extremism than prevent it. This ban will polarise the Muslim population within the Swiss community and force even those indifferent to the government to form an opinion.

Skimming through the comment sections of various European newspapers, it is a little scary to see that most posts slant towards congratulating the Swiss on their effort to "conserve the European heritage and people." I hope we never say anything like that, history proves that stagnant cultures tend to fail.

It's not up to the Swiss to defend their tolerance of Islam. No Swiss terrorists have killed thousands of people all over the world.

Islam needs to go on a PR mission to convince those of us living in civilised countries that they're not a bunch of medieval, backward religious loons. The dislike of Islam is well-founded in Western countries. They've been far too tolerant of muslim extremism and intimidation.

Until Saudi Arabia, Iran and other muslim countries allow religious freedom, they should keep their pieholes shut. They have NO moral ground to stand on whatsoever.

I'm not surprised. Most Muslims, those I know of anyway are certainly not terrorist and are peaceful, dutiful, and productive people, but their brethren living in caves, engaging in constant demonization of western culture and terrorism don't exactly help them get accepted. Naturally, no one feels safe around folks who could go Nidal Hasan for no other reason that they believe they are doing their God's work. What better reason can you have to kill people than a heavenly mandate? I have borrowed and read parts of the Koran from a muslim neighbor once. It was translated in French, which I am fluent in. Despite all assurances Muslims give against the contrary, the Koran clearly states that "infidels" (non-muslims) who refuse to convert to Islam are to be put to death.

I think this is a sober and helpful commnetar.
At the end, building is architectural piece and should be treated this way.
What the Swiss voters did is a shame- this is the same form of democracy shown in Germany where Hitler had just grabbed the power and accussed Jews from all the problems in Waynmar.s Germany. Yesterday Jews and todayMuslims - in the same Europe!

This is not the same Europe and yesterday Jews are not today Muslims, Emir Keric! Inform me, please, how many Jews killed their neighbors in suicide bombings in Weimar Germany. It seems to me, it's your problem, Muslims, to change a bit your mind but not to blame the rest of the world for they are not tolerant of you. Start from yourself, please.

There is nothing wrong with the Swiss. They may chose to ban minarets as they will.
What is wrong is that all but a couple Islamic countries ban all new churches, or in the case of Saudi ANY churches. So what's this about the Swiss being intolerant? Perhaps we should not be politically correct but truthful!
THE intolerant religion and the intolerant countries are the Islamic ones, there really is no case against the Swiss...

Maybe we can also include a broad debate on how christian churches should look in an Arab city in your "... broad debate about how a mosque in a Western city ought to look ..."

The Swiss lawyer who said: "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.""

is obviously woefully ignorant. There have been minarets in Europe for centuries. Just visit southern spain, you'll find several minarets from when muslims used to live peacefully there until the Catholics drove them out or forced them to convert by sword. You can still find paintings depicting Christian soldiers subjugating muslims in that region. So please spare me the evil minaret nonsense...

Its obvious you don't realise that Islam is becoming the dominant culture in Europe, and therefore there is some justified concern about it. Maybe when there is a mosque on every LA street corner you might start to open your glued up eyes.

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