Minarets in the Alps?

Last month the Swiss voted in a referendum to ban minarets, the prayer towers attached to some mosques. To the astonishment of the media, the churches and the politicians, it was approved by a clear overall majority of 57.5 percent of the vote, with 22 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons backing it.  If it survives a legal challenge in the European Court of Human Rights, a paragraph will be added to Article 72 of the Federal Constitution: "The building of minarets is forbidden."

The news was swiftly condemned around the world, not only by Muslims, but even by Swiss Catholic bishops, who said before the vote that "minarets, like the bell towers of churches, are a sign of the public presence of a religion".

The ban is absurd – if it were only about minarets. Islam is certainly growing in Switzerland, but Muslims only represent about 4 percent of the population. Most of them come from Kosovo and Turkey and many are very secular and hardly attend mosques. In fact, in all of Switzerland, there are only an estimated 150 mosques and four minarets.

The Swiss right-wing, anti-immigration parties promoted the ban with a video which depicted the peace of cowbells being disrupted by call to prayers by a muezzin and posters of a burqa-clad woman standing on the Swiss flag with minarets pointing upward like missiles. But this is a fantasy. What does happen is that some cranks have succeeded in restricting the pealing of the church bells which are so characteristic of life in Switzerland. 

What the ban really represents is the first European referendum on the growth of Islam in Europe. And it seems that Europeans are scared. Now the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, sniffing a vote-catcher, has become the first European leader to openly express sympathy for the recent Swiss vote.

In a column in Le Monde yesterday Mr Sarkozy said, "Instead of condemning the Swiss out of hand, we should try to understand what they meant to express and what so many people in Europe feel, including people in France."

Mr Sarkozy has his eyes on national and local elections in March and is trying to strengthen his support amongst conservative voters. He already opposes Muslim women covering their face in public and the French parliament may ban the practice entirely next month. Perhaps the French will now try to ban minarets as well. According to the London Times 46 percent favoured this in a recent survey. More than 40 percent opposed building any mosques, compared with only 19 per cent in favour.

At least Mr Sarkozy is even-handed in his suspicion of open religiosity. Significantly, he added, "Christians, Jews, Muslims, all believers regardless of their faith, must refrain from ostentation and provocation and... practice their religion in humble discretion."

This is the fundamental problem in Switzerland and France – that laicité, or secular humanism in Anglo-Saxon parlance, squirms at overt demonstrations of any religion. Hostility towards Islam follows a long history of anti'clerical hostility towards Christianity itself.

As Jean-François Mayer points out in Religioscope, Switzerland hardly has an exemplary record of religious tolerance. The 1874 Swiss constitution banned the Jesuits and new monasteries, and new dioceses could not be created without government permission. Although these prohibitions were not enforced in the last century, the last of them was removed from the constitution in 2001.

A 2005 survey found that only 48 percent of Swiss believed in God; 39 percent believed in "some sort of spirit or life force"; and 9 percent believed in nothing much at all. In fact, more than 11 percent have no formal allegiance to any church or religious community.

The problem is that many Swiss have nothing to oppose to the deep convictions of their Muslim neighbours. They have abandoned their Christian roots and are drifting aimlessly on a shallow pond of moral and cultural relativism. John Paul II made a very incisive analysis of this phenomenon in 2003:

This loss of Christian memory is accompanied by a kind of fear of the future. Tomorrow is often presented as something bleak and uncertain. The future is viewed more with dread than with desire. Among the troubling indications of this are the inner emptiness that grips many people and the loss of meaning in life…

Europe is presently witnessing the grave phenomenon of family crises and the weakening of the very concept of the family, the continuation or resurfacing of ethnic conflicts, the re-emergence of racism, interreligious tensions, a selfishness that closes individuals and groups in upon themselves, a growing overall lack of concern for ethics and an obsessive concern for personal interests and privileges.

Ultimately the solution to the growing presence of Muslims  in Europe is conversion to Christianity. If the millions of Muslims who live there saw a vibrant, self-confident Christianity in the virtuous lives of their Christian neighbours, many of them would be attracted to the Christian faith. This is already happening, although Christian pastors are not keen to trumpet it. The deputy director of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Magdi Allam, was raised as a Muslim but he was was baptized by Benedict XVI last year. In a statement afterwards he spoke of thousands of Muslim converts to Catholicism in Italy.

The Swiss cannot live forever in a spiritual vacuum. In the 1949 classic The Third Man, Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, makes the snide remark: "In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed - they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!"

Unfair. Very unfair. Horribly unfair. But in this epigram there is an element of truth. Trains that run on time and delectable chocolates are not enough. Unless the Swiss rouse themselves from their secular torpor and offer their immigrants the spiritual richness of their 1700-year-old Christian heritage, they will continue to live in fear of being overwhelmed by forces they cannot understand.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet


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