On the Swiss Minaret Ban

If you’re not following your Swiss religious news (I’m sure most of you are, of course), it falls to me to report to you that the Swiss, in a referendum upset, surprised virtually everyone by passing overwhelmingly (with 57.6% of the vote, and the support of 22 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons) a ban on the construction of any new Muslim minarets . If you’re not familiar, the minaret is the prayer tower which announces when it’s time to pray — it serves almost an identical function to the Christian bell tower, in fact, and a number of Spanish churches have bell towers which were once minarets.

I was discussing this news with Husein, a friend of mine from a Muslim family, to try and figure out what to make of it. The best I can tell, the Swiss realize that their (Christian) culture is dying, but rather than addressing the causes of their cultural decline (their loss of faith), they’re attacking a convenient target: Muslim immigrants who actually believe in their religion. This vote seems to have passed because of the convergence of two unwholesome forces – anti-religiosity on the left, anti-immigration fears on the right – coupled with the special War on Terror era fears of Islam which elements of both sides possess.

What’s Wrong with the World, a blog dedicated “to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ,” notes a trend: Swiss voters, when polled, claimed that they were against the minaret ban, but then voted for it. There’s an interesting US parallel right now: there were 17 state senators who spoke on New York’s gay marriage bill. 16 spoke in favor of it, only one stood up against it. The bill, surprisingly, lost. This signals that those who believe in politically incorrect ideas are being shouted down and intimidated to the point where they don’t feel comfortable revealing their true colors even to pollsters. But significantly, they’re not being persuaded — they’re just going with the movement of the P.C. culture. That’s a trend activists on both sides should take note of. Is it enough to shout down opponents, or should there be moves to change hearts and minds? Are politically incorrect ideas okay to bring to the table? WWwtW readers also noted another worrying trend: of letting people vote on referendums, and then immediately taking the results to court to be overruled if the masses vote “wrong.” We’re already seeing this in California, where Prop 8 is being litigated over for allegedly being unconstitutional.

On the whole, though, GetReligion has better coverage on this, particularly here and here. In the latter story, they address one of the aspects which I originally mentioned to Husein: the Swiss passed this because they claim that the minarets in Switzerland are being built by radical Saudis (no idea if this is true or not). This immediately should remind us of the religious situation in Saudi Arabia. It’s the only Persian Gulf country which completely bans Christian houses of worship, and most of its neighbors allow Christian churches only if they have no bell towers, crosses, or outwardly visible symbols. As shocked as the world was over the Swiss move, the Muslim indignation (captured quite well in quotes in that second GetReligion link) should hopefully spur on some domestic dialogues throughout the Islamic world about the appropriate respect to be shown other religions. It doesn’t sell for Saudi Muslims to complain about what a slap in the face it is, when they have much more rigid rules.

That said, the Swiss behavior here is pretty inexcusable. Husein rightly notes that the Swiss nation-state is set up to be a liberal democracy, not a theocratic kingdom like Saudi Arabia, so even if the Saudis don’t have much room to complain, the Swiss should be setting a positive example of vaguely-Christian democracy, rather than lowering themselves to passing Saudi-type laws in reverse. Besides that, there’s little likelihood that this was passed as a foreign policy maneuver towards the Saudi (and even if it were, it only harms Swiss Muslims, not Saudi Muslims). Much more likely, it’s just a middle finger towards the newest immigrants, a way of letting them know that their kind isn’t welcome.

From a religious standpoint, this whole minaret ban has been nonsense. Swiss Christians have much more to fear from European secularists than they do from Swiss Muslims, and this law if flatly an invasion on religious practice. It’s intended to be. It’s also not effective in saving souls. Swiss Muslims are still free to practice their faith, to convert, and so on, just not to have minarets — in any case, there were only 4 minarets in the entire country, so this has all the weight which, say, banning National Basilicas in the US would. Besides that, by pushing Muslims away from mainstream Swiss society, you’re ensuring that Swiss-based Muslims grow up in Muslim neighborhoods where they feel rejected by the Swiss mainstream. Look at how successful persecuted Christianity is: in ancient Rome, in modern China, and in the Catholic Ghettos in the US at the start of the 20th century. It almost always grows like wildfire. Then look at what happens when religious communities get sucked into the mainstream: they decline and fade out. Assimilating Swiss Muslims would mean that they go from being (say) Syrian Muslims in Switzerland, to being Swiss Muslims, to being Swiss who happen to be Muslim: a gradual process of becoming more Swiss and less Muslim (note, I’m not advocating secularism as superior to Islam here, but that process can, at times, help open the possibility of Christian conversion). The minaret ban did the opposite: it made Swiss Muslims less Swiss. It also just placed a huge hurdle in the way of any Christian missionary trying to reach out to these Muslims.

It’s pleasing to note that there’s been pretty solid Catholic opposition to this. A few years back, one of the Swiss bishops openly criticized the rising anti-Islamic tide as the Swiss refusal to clean house and confront their own national crisis of faith. He argued that it was Christian weakness which lead to the growth of Islam in Switzerland, and that they wouldn’t be afraid of Muslims if they were confident in the Gospel. Harsh words, but so true. When the referendum came up, the Swiss bishops collectively denounced it. When it passed anyways, the (Swiss-born) Saudi Bishop expressed his dismayal: “For us Christians in Arabia, it will certainly not make our work easier, although some might think they have done us a favour by saying yes to this initiative.” In other words, thanks but no thanks. The Vatican was also quick to register its disapproval, which is pleasing, since I’m sure a lot of American Catholics are tempted to support this idea (because of the drumming up of fear of Islam in our own country).
Finally, Husein offered some interesting hypotheticals on it. He originally asked me, “How would the Catholic establishment react if Indonesia put a ban on communion citing that Indonesia is primarily an Islamic country where alcohol must be prohibited – and the consumption of alcohol reflects an unwillingness to assimilate into the dominant Indonesian culture?” I explained that we’d no doubt ignore the law, that we can’t have Mass without valid wine to consecrate and transubstantiate (grape juice isn’t permissible), and that we don’t believe what we’re consuming to be wine. I then mentioned that the minaret is less like Eucharist (which is indispensible to our religious practice) and more like church bell towers (which is optional, but often desirable). Here’s his response, which I think stands on its own:
Fundamentally it seems like an issue of how broad or narrow the right freedom of religion is. Is it sufficient to allow only what is absolutely necessary or does it need to be broader to allow for “non-essential” elements of a religion?
But this also raises many more complex questions. Which sect decides what is and isn’t absolutely necessary? Would the minaret ban turn into the exact same thing as the “wine” during mass if a particular sect believed that it was absolutely necessary for a proper call to prayer?

1 Comment

  1. Well said.

    I haven’t had much time to look into it yet myself, but on the surface, this is a thinly veiled swipe at faith in general. It sets up a virtual precedent for many different religious symbols.

    Actually, it is rather striking that, at the same time that this ban is being passed in Switzerland, Italy and Spain are passing laws banning the crucifix from being displayed in public places. The ban is not being done on the same grounds as that of the minarets, but it sends a similar message: “We will accept that you are a person of faith, just don’t be public about it.”

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