The Minarets of Switzerland
In one of the stranger stories of our strange times, the people of Switzerland voted recently to ban any further construction of minarets in their venerable republic. I have to applaud any country that considers architecture a matter of pressing national importance. (If only we could have voted down some of those glass-and-concrete monstrosities that sprouted in American cities during the ’60s and ’70s!)
But of course the Swiss vote was more than a matter of bricks and mortar. It was a provocative statement on nationalism, religion, immigration, cultural competition and, ultimately, the future of the West.
Here’s what happened. Responding to a vigorous campaign by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (and defying the official position taken by the goverment), 57 percent of voters — and 22 of the country’s 26 cantons — agreed that the pointy-topped Islamic architectural embellishments deserved no sanctuary in Switzerland. The anti-minaret faction saw the offending towers as a political symbol of Islamist fervor; the pro-minaret party stressed the need for religious tolerance.
As a congenital moderate, I can see both sides of the argument. My inner nationalist laments the defiling of pristine European cultures by non-assimilated, non-native elements. The U.S. is a melting pot by nature; Switzerland, though historically tri-lingual, has always displayed a unique quality of Swissness that stamps its character. Think of Heidi, William Tell, meticulous mustachioed watchmakers, Alpine pastures and fondue pots. As much as I love halvah and shish-kebab, those robust Eastern delicacies are simply out of place in the shadow of the Matterhorn.
Of course, my inner Classical Liberal believes that no religion should be suppressed by vote or decree. But what exactly were the Swiss voters deciding when they put the brakes on the burgeoning minaret industry? Were they sending a xenophobic message to their Muslim neighbors… or were they looking to the future, delivering a pre-emptive strike on militant Islam and Sharia law before they could gain a foothold in Switzerland?
Switzerland is six percent Muslim, a number that started at zero only a few decades ago. Given the disparity between native European and Muslim birth rates, you can safely bet that the number is pointed upward. Switzerland already harbors around 150 mosques — should we be alarmed? How could any reasonable person expect the Swiss to tolerate the sound of Muslim muezzins calling the faithful to prayer — six times a day, starting at dawn?
Well, the story isn’t that simple. Only four Swiss mosques include minarets. In fact, the call to prayer is already illegal in Switzerland — as it should be. (Can you imagine the uproar at HuffingtonPost if American churches started broadcasting the Lord’s Prayer from their steeples six times a day?)
President Obama has referred to the muezzin’s call as “one of the prettiest sounds on earth.” (Naturally, that statement ignited more than a little hysteria on the right.) Having heard the call myself while standing atop a medieval tower in Istanbul, I can’t entirely disagree with the president. But aesthetics aren’t the issue here — neither the architectural aesthetics of the minarets nor the vocal aesthetics of the call to prayer. Religious freedom isn’t the issue, either; the Swiss haven’t prohibited or even restricted anyone’s right to practice Islam.
The crux of the matter is symbolism: whether the West should welcome highly visible emblems of a religion that, in its fundamentalist form, calls for the forced conversion (and, failing that, the divinely-sanctioned destruction) of us infidels.
Muslim fundamentalists are at war with the West. We didn’t ask them to make war on us, but here we are anyway. If the fundamentalists had their way, every nation in the West would bow to Mecca and submit to Sharia law. Obviously we can’t permit that kind of cultural transformation in our own societies. But how do we hold back the tide without sending a message of intolerance toward inoffensive moderate Muslims? Can European societies declare that their vaunted guest-worker programs were a disaster, and send their Muslims packing? No, too late for that.
So we’re left with banning public symbols. That’s about all we can do at this point without either compromising our stance on religious tolerance or abandoning Western civilization to the fanatics. It’s a reasonably moderate position, if we can keep it. I suppose we can also pray that Jehovah will help keep Allah’s legions in check. Wait… they’re the same god? Never mind.