Monday, November 30, 2009

Nada to Islamic Minarets in Switzerland

The Swiss populace has spoken: No new Islamic minarets in Switzerland.
Let me be as clear as I can be about my reaction to this development: I am for religious freedom in principle, as long as it doesn't conflict with basic political freedoms embodied in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. I am not a religious person; I don't practice any formal ritual; and I don't subscribe to any religious cosmology or dogma of behavior or ethical guidance. I was "sort of" raised Protestant, but there was no conviction in our family to speak of. I regard myself as a liberal humanist, and my politics is a hodge-podge of Left and Right positions, arrived at pragmatically on a case by case basis.

I resist the notion of a "Christian" basis for Western political ideals, despite the well-known fact that such religious ideas permeated the culture during the formation of our founding documents and institutions. I dislike the aggressive proselytization which many faiths engage in. 

I know little about Islamic faith, and I'm not particularly ambitious to know more. I accept the claims that radical, fatalistic Islamic extremist factions do not represent the core majority and emphasis of belief by most Muslims. 

Nevertheless, there are some basic tenets of Islam, which are not compatible with political and personal freedom as we understand it. These principles have historically been restricted to the Middle and Far East, though Islam has been expanding its influence and reach over the last half century--into Africa, Indonesia, parts of Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. This is no surprise, as Christianity did the same thing for centuries; was indeed the accompaniment and "justification" of much of the colonial exploitation and suppression of native peoples and cultures in the so-called Third World (i.e., the "White Man's burden"). 

History is not static. The face of the planet is now a collection of separate nations, many of which have historical ties and associations which bind them into natural alliances and blocs. Religion, despite what you think of it, has been one common theme in maintaining such alliances. Indeed, religion often transcends national borders, creating super-national spheres in the world. European nations share many such transcendent bonds. So do the nations of the Middle East which are dominated by the Islamic faith.

As Islam has begun to penetrate the European subcontinent, the question of its affect on the resident political and cultural traditions now must be addressed. Christianity has been so much a part of the fabric of European civilization (both Roman Catholicism and the Protestant faiths)--intertwined with the custom and belief and practice of daily life--for so long (centuries)--that it seems a precipitous upheaval would be needed to unseat its position there.  

In principle, any parliamentary democracy must enforce religious freedom. But what if a religion involves more than just a private obligation, more than peaceful congregation? What if a religion involves obeisance to a rigid code of practice that divides believers along sexual and racial lines, which rejects democracy and the freedoms which we understand to be consistent with equality and the privileges and entitlements of citizenship? 

Can such a religion "co-exist" inside a true democracy without eventually coming into direct conflict with opposing religions, or with non-believers? Can a religion--that makes de-facto slaves out of half of its members, rejects the freedom of others on principle, and creates in effect a separate society (or nation) unto itself--be accommodated inside a Western Democracy, without eventually causing deep conflicts between itself and the larger society of which it's nominally a part?

The question in Switzerland isn't simply a matter of pluralistic religious tolerance. It's a question of the degree to which the Swiss shall entertain the taking over of its society by an alien religious paradigm that is diametrically opposed to the principles it (Switzerland) adheres to. Does the construction of minarets and large mosques constitute a threat to Swiss society? The easy answer, at this stage, might be a naive "no." 

But the fabric of Swiss society is inextricably Christian. Should a society regard the aggressive spread of a foreign religion inside its borders as a threat to its identity, to its folk-ways and customs and institutions? The answer to that depends upon what value you put upon the continuity of the institutional fabric of your own national identity. 

It is not in the least irrational for the Swiss to believe that the unrestrained spread of Islam will have dire consequences for its cultural identity, as well as its political outlook. It is one thing to trade with Islamic countries, or to serve as their bankers, or to entertain them as vicarious tourists; it's quite another thing to allow Islamic cells to expand willy-nilly into your cities and towns. 

For Islam is more than a mere religion. It proposes a theocratic unity of state and church, in which all aspects of daily life are united. It is quite naive to think that a static Islamic presence will allow itself to be marginalized indefinitely by exclusions and restrictions of one kind or another. Its ultimate aim is the control of society. The means by which it achieves this is through religious doctrine. It despises secularism, and regards Western "freedoms" as variations of "sin." 

If the Swiss do nothing to restrain Islam, in another 50-100 years it could face internal convulsions, resulting in its transformation into an Islamic theocracy. Wherever Islam has gained a strong foot-hold among the populace, the secular political life has come under intense pressure. This is something the Swiss have decided they want to avoid. Whether restricting the construction of churches (or architectural features) as symbols of unwanted religious influence, will have any deterrent effect upon the spread of Islam in Switzerland, remains to be seen. Can you imagine hearing the Muslim call to prayer in Bern or Zurich or Geneva? Can you imagine a woman fearing to walk in "certain neighborhoods" because of the threat of attack for not being properly attired?   

Are the Swiss wrong to imagine that their way of life is in jeopardy?  You be the judge.      


Kirby Olson said...

If you were to vote on this in America, how would you vote? (Secret ballot.)

Of course Europeans haven't got the first amendment which guarantees the right to freedom of religion (many people think it guarantees the separation of church and state, but it does no such thing).

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I think you're being a bit xenophobic (as are some of my own teacher-colleagues here in Canada who fear the Sharia law will one day override Canada's own Charter of Rights and Freedoms in regards to marriage and morals. Some even wonder if the wearing of the Hajib by young students violates school uniform code).

Are Minarets and the call to prayers anymore a threat than steeples and Sunday bells? Shakers, Quakers and Baptists might seem a bit odd to the religious authorities of their day, past and present.

It's the old postnationalist self-questioning of the critic who both defers to but (after all is said and done: "If the Swiss do nothing to restrain Islam, in another 50-100 years..." etc)would like a curtailment of Islamic rights in his/her own country.

It's a view I find a bit alarmist and irrational.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

I apologize for my misspelling of Hijab.

Curtis Faville said...


We can only think inside of what we know, and who we are.

If the tide of public opinion moves steadily towards an acceptance of Islamic fundamentalism, it's quite possible that our descendants might feel a lot less threatened by this. History is made by those who survive, and those whose ideas won out.

History is a battle of ideas. Turkey is presently struggling to find its identity, and the outcome is very much in doubt. Will Turkey join the European Union and enter the 21st Century, or slump back into the 11th by succumbing to Islamic cultural prototypes?

The Arab nations know that the oil glut is a very temporary thing. In another 100 years--give or take a decade or two--the Arabian Peninsula will find itself going back to being an empty desert. In the meantime, what will they do with all their money? Osama Bin Laden certainly has definite ideas about that.

Curtis Faville said...


America isn't Switzerland.

Can the U.S. "contain" greater degrees of pluralism than Europe? Probably, except for the language thing.

But I don't like the idea of seeing women wearing veils in my neighborhood--it's backward. It belongs to a time of poor hygiene, and fear and loathing of women, and sexual jealousy. Bad stuff. We can't go back.

Ed Baker said...

Ben Kingsley narrated a terrific PBS film about 10 years ago... I have the VHS version by now it is most likely on a cd..

WORTH A VIEWING several times..

called ISLAM: Empire of Faith

here is part of the "blurb" on the box:

"9...) The three hour program tells the spectacular story of the great sweep of Islamic poewr and faith during its first 1,000 years (say between the fall of Rome and the European voyages of discovery) - from the birth of the Prophet Muhammed to the peak of the Ottoman Empire ubder the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. Historical re-enactments and a remarkable exposition of Islamic art, artifacts and archetecture are combined with intervies of scholars from around the world to recount the rise and importance of early Islamic civilization. Increasingly, scholars and historians are recognizing the profound impact that Islamic civilization has had on Western culture and the course of world history>"

don't miss this ... and, after you watch it.... WATCH IT AGAIN.


t h e n get thee copies of

Bloom and Blair's Islamic Arts (Phaidon, 1997)


Robert Irwin's Islamic Art in context (Harry Abrams, Inc. , 1997)

especially chapter three which opens:

"The centrality of the mosque within the Islamic faith makes a study of its origins and development, as the first "Islamic" form of building, the first consideration in any discussion of Islamic archetecture, (etc)."

Curtis Faville said...


It's important not to confuse the accomplishments of Muslim culture with the problems of trans-national migrations, and the impact of wholesale overnight change.

With the rapid rise in portability of people (and culture) around the world, since the 15th Century, reaching a crescendo in our time, there's an unhealthy cross-fertilization of incompatible componants (different faiths being the most visible, aside from capitalism and communism).

I think there's much worth preserving in centuries-old cultural paradigms, but we should be careful not to equate this with the spread and ambitions of contemporary religious evanglism, especially of Islam.

Ed Baker said...


I certainly wasn't equating

"this" with "that"

my bottom line?:

both Religion and Politics are bologna!
and, as, god,so, frequently, said:

"no ideas but in things
doesn't mean no ideas."

jh said...

i judge the few who voted to be amongst
the essence of middle european hypocricy

true islam is a one world one faith sort of thinking
and they are self righteous about it
but a sweet stream of decency flows through their culture
they accept the dichotomy of their faith in contrast to the rest of the world
and not the least bit angrily

the fabric of swiss culture - christian?
well historically yes
presently no
they have largely opted for a

'decent' cultural agnosticism
french humanism more precisely

your response curtis appears to be rooted in a particularly american form of skepticism

perhaps understanding at the very basic human level
for instance meeting with and entering into argument in a friendly way with muslim intellectuals
this could be valuable

the best of islam is really very attractive in its cultural grace

switzerland only begrudgingly allows for a nominal catholicism within it's borders
( the popes on the other hand seem to trust the swiss gaurd)
i only trust the swiss chard
lutherism and calvinism met in switzerland and produced a form of rigourous humanism which does n't bear well with any sort of ardency

USA has been able to bear with malcolm X louis farahkhan and every major city plays host to at least some islamic expression of faith
why can't switzerland

i think their perception of the west and particularly USA as a "schizophrenic culture" deserves some consideration...we might well ask what our social medications are

if we fear them they've already won

i read
tariq ali last summer
the book of saladin
i plan to read more

then there's the strange oddysseyy
of st sophia in istanbul
an architectural cultural historical forced marriage

i guess if we don't acknowledge the intuition for god as inherent in human beings then it's expressions are surprising

colleges which promote some form of islamic sensitivity for intellectual discussion are doing great things

my home town helena montana boasts a tall minaret but it is a mark of the civic center building
not used for religious purposes
the diocesan catholic offices are in the former synagogue

the world is a dangerous place
ideas can be dangerous
faith can be dangerous
atheism can be dangerous

i would much rather hear the warbling canticles of muzzeins
than the harsh clangs and beeps and screeches of the industrial world of our cities

what if it comes down to having to believe that an allknowing god can and will take care of all these things??

salaam aleihkim


WV equalfe

Curtis Faville said...

Interesting post, jh, and there are many things in it I agree with.

My experience may be a bit broader than you imagine. I had the chance to befriend several Iranians in the 1960's--both through a family friend, and later as an undergraduate at Berkeley. I found them to be friendly, charming, erudite, stylish, and almost courtly in their manners. But they were also selfish, insincere, privately disdainful, and concealed deep emotional distress--all hallmarks of their class (upper class Iranians who both benefitted from, but resented their connection to the Shah and his American masters).

I think that if you get to know a little more about Islam--and I by no means consider myself really qualified, by the way--I think you will find it anything but innocent and "peaceful." Islam is responsible to a large degree for keeping the Arab world in a state of cultural suspended animation.

Western culture is filled with abuses and ugliness and oppression, as these are in large measure the consequence of freedoms and laissez-faire and capitalistic exploitation--but I'd rather have these, along with all the conveniences and percolating ingenuity of the modern world, instead of the grinding, pinched, inwardly focused preoccupations of Islam. The evidence of this is plain for anyone to see. Go to Egypt or Arabia or Pakistan and see for yourself.

I have been thinking for a long time about different notions of tolerance. The 1980's and 1990's saw the ascendance of "multi-cultural relativism" in philosophy and the arts. What bothers me is the idea that one must think "outside" the box of one's own interest(s)--out of guilt, or political correctness, or...whatever. In fact, much of this is just good old-fashioned snake-oil salesmanship. Believing that native drums are better than Shakespeare is not just stupid, it's dangerous. Believing that devout Muslims, for instance, whose whole lives revolve around their daily obeisance to rigid rituals, are superior to middle-class white collar secular humanists, because they're somehow self-contained and "whole" is the sheerest nonsense. And even if it were true, we went through the Middle Ages, got through them, finally, only to be told (now) that the long singing line of obsequious sinners was really the better choice than living in a clean apartment?

Give me a break.

jh said...

i lived in israel for 6 months
i traveled in egypt
i looked i saw
i heard of islamic antichristianity

and i hope i'm not perceived as being naive here
i do note the extremism
and the intensity to which many or most muslims pay at least some agreement

i wouldn't say they are superior
i simply would say that i can admire much of what has been represented of their faith
i find the persian poetic tradition to be quite amazing
ghazals and what not

i've had some very pleasant interacton with muslims
i've been in discussion with a few sufis
but i've had some very uncomfortable discussions with them too but i've had uncomfortable discussions with people of my own faith

i once brought an evangelical husband of a former girlfriend of mine to a boiling point by stating that islamic fundamentalism is less hyporitical than christian fundamentalism
because at least they build upon the notion of jihad so war and even outrageous acts of violence follow a consistent religious logic
( i know that sounds immensely oxymoronic)
whereas taking the words of christ seriously requires the christian to question the impulse of war and violence on moral grounds and in fact to reject the inclination to violence all together when fully understood
many christians don't seem to get this (rene girard is the most eloquent expositor of this strain of thinking in modern writing)

the voice of nonreligious critique is valuable...the cultural No and WHAT OF IT? forces us to be clear and consistent...i would think that same sort of critique could be important for islam...forcing them gently toward a self criticism

secular humanism stands in my mind as a religion unto itself
by taking the stance of utter rejection in matters of faith the argument is made impossible
the way i see the catholic position unfolding these days is to try to be open to what is best in the faith while not being blind to what is truly inimical

the holy father simply asks the question of people of all walks of life -- can their be a healthy discussion between culture and religion??

i do beleive you go some distance in answering in the affirmative here on this blog

thanks for these two positngs none the less
i wasn't aware of the news
and lord knows we wouldn't get it on mainstream television
i'm sure PBS did something on the whole thing but i've been away from the telly
i was engaged with some of my relatives in football watching over the long weekend
it was the only way to be with one of my inlaws

great mencken post too by the way


J said...

The swiss did the right thing, most likely, but secularism should ALWAYS be equal opportunity. There are far more baptist or mormon warehouses--and cathedrals--than mosques--perhaps we should vote on all churches. Monotheistic holidays, whether xtian, jewish, or muslim, should be under scrutiny as well.

Yet voting itself is no guarantee that secular liberty will be preserved. Given a majority vote re. the citizens' preferred G*d, I suspect it would be a toss-up between baptist and papist flavors. Only by vigorously upholding contractual rights (First Amendment, but... ramped-up) will American secularists prevent monotheists and fundamentalists from trampling on freedom--for that matter, even rational believers of any faith have good reasons to side with secularists (and secularists are not necessarily atheists).

Osiris forbid the day the church bus (or iglesia-bus) stops at the front of your house and some Billy Bob Baptick demands attendance, or else.

Anonymous said...

'Believing that native drums are better than Shakespeare'

who has ever argued / believed this ?

I think it's usually argued (ie "multiculturalism" includes the proposition) that both are of interest. Which they are.

Obviously Shakespeare'll always be the big dog--no matter what a few academics otherwise (if they indeed do; I've never read of any ranking S. lower than a genius).

Curtis Faville said...

My point is that it's important not to believe that you can slough off your cultural baggage and become some morally perfected, serenely objective judge of everything. To attain such a condition, would be to lose one's individual humanity (and identity). Identity, by definition, is the power of one's persuasive vision of being, of one's inalienable and unique experience and thought.

Multi-cultural diversity and textual relativism were weapons to try to disarm and unseat traditional Western views of meaning, beauty, and power. To "de-construct" those power centers by instilling guilt and doubt. A lot of people bought into that and came to believe that the whole of Western culture was somehow bankrupt and corrupt.

This was what I was getting at.

Kirby Olson said...

A good editorial in the local paper today by some Egyptian woman who said the Swiss were going down the road of intolerance first visited by the Saudis who don't allow any Christian churches whatsoever on their lands. Egypt itself threw out all westerners in the 1960s. It's against the law to be Christian in Afghanistan, penalty is death.

So she said it's kind of a double standard for Muslims in the west to make a big deal out of minarets.

Still, she thinks that we should be tolerant over here to make a point, I guess.

Yesterday a professor at Binghamton University an hour south was stabbed to death. We're waiting for the culprit to be announced, for motivations to be announced. He had written a book against Christianity and Islam.

So it remains to be seen which one censored him.

Any bets?

It was one of his graduate students who knifed him to death. Sad sad story. But it was just one paragraph in the local paper, buried on p. 13.

Binghamton is a very rough town lately. Last spring a guy from Asia shot a half dozen people at an ESL center.

Multiculturalism destroyed the west, and replaced it with -- ?

It remains to be seen.

I am proposing Lutheran Surrealism be the new religion. But so far I have no acoyltes, only critics.

I think you need an army to get these things off the ground.

Curtis Faville said...

Onward Christian soldiers, Kirb.

Kirby Olson said...

Update: the murder was committed by a fellow named Abdulsalam S. Al-Zahrani, a graduate student working on a dissertation entitled, "Sacred Voice, Profane Sigh: The Senses Cosmology, and Epistemology in Early Arabi Culture."

He was fairly irascible, and had scared his room mates by offering to kill them from time to time. Other Muslims in Binghamton avoided him as he would say they weren't good Muslims.

He bummed cigarettes even if he had a full pack in his shirt pocket.

You have to watch out for guys who have Al in their name these days. Al Bundy notwithstanding.

But I think this guy was certifiable. The deal on campuses is that there should be a way to report strange vipers like this, and get them evaluated. It should be anonymous, but then of course everybody would be turning everybody else in.

Hard to know what to do, but someone should sit down and sort it out.

There is a memorial today for Professor Richard T. Antoun today at the Islamic Center of Johnson city (part of the Binghamton area tri-cities). He was 77-years old, and was the killer's thesis advisor.

Broome County District Attorney Gerald F. Mollen said, "There is no indication of religious or ethnic motivation."

Information taken from the Press and Sun bulletin, p. A1, and A10, Sunday December 6, 2009.

Charles Shere said...

I think I would have voted with the majority, not because I'm opposed to Islam any more than I am to any other monotheism, but because I wouldn't be able to resist the opportunity of casting a vote against architecture.

Curtis Faville said...

What an odd thing to say!

You mean against architecture qua architecture?

Are you familiar with Christopher Alexander's work? The Pattern Language was an attempt to build up a system of design from specific particulars, empirically proceeding from the simplest forms ultimately to a community of structure. In Alexander's ideal world, nothing would ever be built to suit the priorities of greed, or exploitation, or mere "pure" aesthetic impulse.

Everyone seems to want to live in a comfortable house, but clean, pristine, reflective structures still capture our imaginations.

On a larger scale, uncontrolled population growth kills every meaningful impulse to the good life that emerges from settled relationships with the environment. It's all gone now. Just a matter of time. God help the generations to come.

jh said...

charles shere
you don't care for domes
and large phallic embraces
in the sky what??

where would any architecture be without some exaggeration

even the parisians allowed for spires higher than the six story limit in paris

i guess the vote is really against archiecture it is a way of the swiss govt saying tot he muslims build all the mosques you want we don't want to have to see them however
sort of viscious i think

prefer not the minaret to the canyonwalls of nyc??

i've thought more than once that 9eleven was at some level an anger against architecture


Charles Shere said...

no, well, what i meant of course was
what they call architecture these days --
commercial corporate architecture, like the newfangled minarets
in the photo.

i told chris alexander once that i thought (and printed)
that a pattern language was one of the ten most important books
of the last few hundred years.

but he's not writing about what architecture has come to mean.

i think the pantheon in rome is architecture, a glorious thing.

of course a minaret is preferable to a monotonous "canyonwall"
but then what isn't?

you're right, jh, 9/11 was certainly anger directed toward architecture
arrogant architecture speaking for cultural arrogance

jh said...

charles shere
i'm on to
a pattern language today
you're the second person
to put that in my view
now i will view it
and am reading
life of le corbusier
by nick fox weber

i still think the swiss are prissy