The Swiss go to the polls today to vote on a referendum designed to halt the construction of Islamic minarets--the architectural towers, familiar in Muslim countries--which symbolize Islamic religious presence and are used to broadcast the "call to prayer"--the lyrical wail which is heard through the Islamic world each day.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Swiss Vote on Banning Islamic Minarets
Switzerland has a history of non-involvement in European conflicts, and has maintained its reputation as a sort of island of neutrality in a sea of dispute and difference. This was accompanied by a cultural homogeneity--a sort of German/French/Italian hybridized model--designed to preserve a sense of its unique character, dignified and transparent.
With the increasing portability of populations around the world, European nations have seen their respective national character and historical traditions challenged by huge influxes of African, Asian and Middle-Eastern people migrating North and West. Concerns have been raised in these countries about the threatened continuity of political, cultural and religious institutions posed by the radically different foreign paradigms.
The official Swiss government position has held that bans against religious symbols (like churches) could have a damaging effect on Switzerland's reputation as an "open, tolerant and secure" place for the tourism and banking industries. Advocates of religious freedom and tolerance have decried the referendum as an example of irrational reactionary nationalism, racism, hatred and fear of the unknown.
The history of the conflict between Islamic expansion and the West has been anything but peaceful. Spain was the cultural battleground between Islamic and Christian religions for hundreds of years. Both Christianity and Islam--in their purest expression--call for an integration between religious and political life which comes into direct conflict with principles of parliamentary democracy, individual freedoms, and the separation of church and state since the Enlightenment.
For good or ill, the legacy of organized religion in the modern world has been largely one of intolerance: Intolerance of differing ways of life, intolerance of competing views of ethics and behavior, and of opposing religious practice and concepts. Western democracies would like to believe that religious tolerance, like political pluralism, is simply a matter of learning to be more tolerant.
But if by tolerance we mean allowing harmful or dogmatic factions to dictate and overwhelm existing institutions and practice, then perhaps we need new definitions of tolerance. Islamic dogma contains several tenets which are anathema to so-called democratic, "free societies." I put "free" in quotes because, from an Islamic point of view, freedom to violate Islamic doctrine constitutes a deeply offensive liberality, which it considers intolerable.
Islam, as it is practiced, is not compatible with Western democratic principles. The subjugation of women, and the insistence upon theocratic integration into all aspects of daily life, is in direct conflict with the separation of church and state, and the principle of equality which guides so much Western thought.
This is not to say that Christianity, which continues to have a strong influence in the West, is an unalloyed good. On the contrary. Free societies still must resist religious dogma, in whatever form it presents itself.
But Islam doesn't have historical roots in Europe. For the Western democracies to entertain the notion that a growing Islamic presence is a harmless phenomena is indeed naive. Can Switzerland afford to allow Islam to establish a strong foothold, with the construction of huge mosques, with overarching towers? Is traditional Islamic practice compatible with a free society? Can Islam "co-exist" peacefully with other (Western) religions?
If I were a Swiss citizen, I would be inclined to regard Islamic infiltration with skeptical caution. How far along the road to idealistic "tolerance" can a Western society go, before it relinquishes its freedom? To put the question another way, is an historically Christian nation justified in resisting the incursion of aggressive, expanding Islamic communities in its midst?