Swiss Compete with Saudi’s to Undermine Religious Freedom - updated

Sheila Musaji

Posted Dec 3, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Swiss Compete with Saudi’s to Undermine Religious Freedom

by Sheila Musaji

Note:  Updates at bottom of article

The Minaret Ban in Switzerland is one of those incidents that requires some time to process because there are so many threads to the story.  Switzerland is the European country that anyone thinks of when they think of neutrality and tolerance.  And, yet this is exactly the place where a ban just took place which shows a deep streak of racism towards, fear of, and willingness to discriminate against the 4.5% of the population that is Muslim. 

Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country that has a terrible human rights record, is an absolute monarchy, and promotes a particularly rigid and extreme view of Islam that is repressive.  In Saudia Arabia churches cannot be built, and it is even illegal to meet for Christian prayers or services.  As a Muslim I am absolutely in disagreement with the Saudi position on this and many other issues, and openly state those views, as have many other Muslims.  However, any reform movements in Saudi will be a long time coming as the royal family has the strong support of the U.S. government.  And because of this no pressure is put on them to do something about their human rights and religious rights situation.

The Saudi situation is deplorable, and yet it seems that in the heart of Europe, the most enlightened country of Switzerland is ready to emulate the Saudi’s and turn its back on the enlightenment, on the best of modernity, and join the Saudi’s by taking the first step down a road leading to a return to a past in which minorities were treated barbarically culminating in the holocaust. 

We don’t need minarets to practice Islam.  There is no requirement that a mosque must have a minaret anymore than a church must have a steeple.  But the banning of minarets in Switzerland is a human rights and religious freedom issue because it is specific to one religious community.  Just as a minaret is a recognized symbol of a mosque, this vote to ban minarets is symbolic of a general state of mind.  It sends a message to the Muslim community that they are not part of the society, that they are unwelcome aliens.  The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement that prohibiting an architectural structure linked to Islam or any religion was “clearly discriminatory.” She said the ban was “discriminatory, deeply divisive and a thoroughly unfortunate step for Switzerland to take, and risks putting the country on a collision course with its international human rights obligations.”  European Catholic and Protestant religious leaders have spoken out against the ban.  According to the ADL: The Federation of Swiss Jewish Communities (FSJC) clearly stated its opposition to the initiative before the vote and expressed its disappointment at the result. This is not the first time a Swiss popular vote has been used to promote religious intolerance.  A century ago, a Swiss referendum banned Jewish ritual slaughter in an attempt to drive out its Jewish population.  We share the FSJC’s stated concern that those who initiated the anti-minaret campaign could try to further erode religious freedom through similar means.  As a great many Swiss and international legal experts have said, the ban is clearly inconsistent with Switzerland’s obligations under international law to respect the freedom of religion and not to discriminate on the grounds of religious belief. Even if the Swiss Federal Supreme Court does not reject the law, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg almost certainly will.

Why mention the Saudi’s and the Swiss together?  Because the argument is commonly made that if Muslims want rights in western countries, then those same rights should be reciprocated in predominantly Muslim countries.  Saudi Arabia and its denial of religious freedom is held up as an example.  This really is not the point of any of this.  If I am a citizen of a country like Switzerland, or the United States, or any other free, democratic country which stands for human and religious rights, then those rights apply to all, including myself - they apply to the majority and the minority.  Those rights are what gives these countries whatever moral standing they have.  “Civilization” (or the lack thereof) might well be measured by the extent that the ideals of human rights are applied to all within a given society.  I cannot see that the solution to the lack of human rights in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else is to take away human rights in other countries where they now exist.  That way leads only to the spread of darkness.

Here are the comments of some Muslim leaders and activists whose take on this situation is important.  Links are provided so that you can read their articles in their entirety.

Aziz Poonawalla: “The irony of the ban is that it was sold as a means to prevent extremist Islam from taking root in Switzerland, but if anything actually increases that risk by sending a clear message to muslims that they are not welcome members of civic society. For its part, the Swiss muslim community has sought to downplay the vote, shunning interviews with foreign muslim media organizations and seeking to maintain a low profile. The challenge for them will be to weather the storm of increased Islamophobia that the racist campaign stoked and exploited - a burden that they would have borne regardless of the outcome of the vote. And they must now be extra vigilant that their own do not respond to this deliberate provocation by hardening their hearts against their nation and their fellow citizens. It’s easy to turn inwards and dwell in bitterness and humiliation, but it’s more important to look forward.”

Tariq Ramadan“Over the last two decades Islam has become connected to so many controversial debates – violence, extremism, freedom of speech, gender discrimination, forced marriage, to name a few – it is difficult for ordinary citizens to embrace this new Muslim presence as a positive factor. There is a great deal of fear and a palpable mistrust. Who are they? What do they want? And the questions are charged with further suspicion as the idea of Islam being an expansionist religion is intoned. Do these people want to Islamise our country?    The campaign against the minarets was fuelled by just these anxieties and allegations. Voters were drawn to the cause by a manipulative appeal to popular fears and emotions. Posters featured a woman wearing a burka with the minarets drawn as weapons on a colonised Swiss flag. The claim was made that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with Swiss values. (The UDC has in the past demanded my citizenship be revoked because I was defending Islamic values too openly.) Its media strategy was simple but effective. Provoke controversy wherever it can be inflamed. Spread a sense of victimhood among the Swiss people: we are under siege, the Muslims are silently colonising us and we are losing our very roots and culture. This strategy worked. The Swiss majority are sending a clear message to their Muslim fellow citizens: we do not trust you and the best Muslim for us is the Muslim we cannot see.”

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf “Religious freedom is essential for achieving peace. Right-wing Swiss populists are no more at fault than right-wing Muslims, who in recent years have become much more rigid in rejecting the free expression of religion in Muslim countries.  Peace will come only when Westerners and Muslims alike understand that religious freedom and respect for human dignity are at the core of their spiritual beliefs.”

Yasir Qadhi: “The real threat that ‘Moozlem terrorists’ pose to the West, therefore, is not in the survival of its physical lands, but in the survival of its own values and freedoms that it has struggled so long to secure. In an attempt to stem an alleged ‘Islamization’ of Europe that would supposedly endanger European values and liberties, Europe appears ready to discard those very values and liberties. In the name of protecting freedom, Europe is prepared to lose it. Even as they create the imaginary monster of the ‘Islamist’, they fail to look in the mirror and see the monster that is themselves.    How cherished and universal Western freedoms and values really are is a question that the West itself will have to answer. What happens to these values and freedoms in the next few years will be critical in the formulation of a new Western identity: one that will either be universal and inclusive, or selective and exclusive. And while Western Muslims would welcome being included in that identity, being so minuscule in number, they can only do so much to help in that conversation.”

ISNA Statement  “The ban is a source of great concern for Western Muslims as they see European commitment to religious freedom and human rights unravel in the face of extremist threats on one side and extremist fear mongering on the other. The Swiss vote will undoubtedly invigorate the forces of intolerance worldwide and will give the wrong signals to countries struggling to build traditions of civil rights.    The move will be also celebrated by extremist voices in Muslim societies, who will use the incident to drive a wedge between Muslim and Western countries. It will further complicate the task of European Muslims who are working to build bridges and promote tolerance and understanding, and will set back the efforts to develop tolerance and respect for religious freedom throughout the world.    It is vital that Western democracies do not cave in to violent threats by religious extremism, and continue to serve as models for protecting religious freedom and civil rights. Their ability to integrate Muslim minorities and treat them with dignity will set a good example to people all over the world, including Muslim societies, to persevere in their pursuit of more open and inclusive societies.    It is now the time for leading voices of freedom and tolerance in Switzerland and European democracies and the United States to challenge this discriminatory law. We also call on human rights organizations and religious groups, including European Muslims, to challenge the law in Swiss and European courts and make sure that this palpable discrimination against the free exercise of religion does not stand.”

Many Muslim governments have spoken out against the Swiss ban, but they are on really shaky moral ground unless they have absolute religious freedom within their own countries for their minorities.  Speaking out against this issue without getting their own houses in order is simply hypocritical. 

Shaikh Ali Gomaa an important religious scholar from Egypt’s Al Azhar University spoke against the Swiss ban and said: “This proposal…is not considered just an attack on freedom of beliefs, but also an attempt to insult the feelings of the Muslim community in and outside Switzerland,” Gomaa, the Egyptian government’s official interpreter of Islamic law, told the state-run news agency MENA.    He encouraged Switzerland’s 400,000-strong Muslim community to use “dialogue” and legal means to contest the ban, which he described as “provocative behaviour.”  I have searched, but cannot find that he has spoken strongly against the Saudi ban on churches, or on the prejudicial treatment of Christian Copts in his own country.  Again, unless religious freedom and human rights are demanded and upheld for all, any possible moral ground is lost.

Last year Yusuf al Qaradawi issued a fatwa saying that it was permissible to build churches in Muslim countries.  “Prominent scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi approves building churches for Christian citizens of or residents in Muslim countries to meet their needs just as Muslims are being allowed to build mosques in the West.    “There is nothing wrong in building churches for Christian citizens if there is such a need because their numbers have multiplied or because they lack a place to worship as long as it is authorized by the ruler,” Qaradawi said.    “This also applies to non-Muslims who came to a Muslim country for work or residence and have grown in numbers and need a church to worship.”    The fatwa came in response to a question regarding the building of the first-ever church in the Gulf emirate of Qatar.  ...  Sheikh Qaradawi, the IUMS president, also approved for Muslims to participate in building churches.    “If we allow them (Christians) to build churches in Muslim countries, then participation in the construction is also approved though many scholars would not like Muslims to do that.”    Sheikh Qaradawi noted that scholars have been divided on the issues of allowing churches in Muslim countries and Muslims participating in the construction.    He noted that of the four main schools of Islamic thought only Imam Abu Hanifa approves this.    Qaradawi based his view, which goes in line with Abu Hanifa’s, on the Muslim principle of equal treatment.  “Just like they allow Muslims in their countries to build mosques for prayers.”

12/4/09 UPDATE

Just two days after the minaret ban, Christophe Darbellay, president of the Christian Democratic People’s Party of Switzerland is calling for a ban on separate Muslim and Jewish cemeteries.

Clearly, when prejudice is given public support, it encourages xenophobes to come out of the closet.  When any minority is made a scapegoat, then other minorities are also not safe.  This is why as the Jerusalem Post reports “Jewish organizations, realizing that a crackdown on Islam could have repercussions for Jews as well, have come to the defense of Muslim worshipers, arguing that the Swiss’s move was unjustifiable.”  And JTA reports that France’s Chief Rabbi, “Rabbi Gilles Bernheim said a Swiss vote Nov. 29 forbidding the construction of minarets alongside mosques was a clear sign that Western European leaders had “failed” at building tolerance toward Muslims, and he called on “all religions” as well as political leaders to increase interfaith dialogue.  “Today we need to act so that Europeans, and not just the Swiss,  change their opinion about Islam,” ... He compared the law aimed at minarets to past sanctions against European Jews.  “The problem” with the Swiss vote “is the discrimination that it introduces by authorizing the construction of church steeples and tall buildings by all other religions except Islam.  Bernheim noted that in the past, Jews were forbidden to construct synagogues taller than churches.”  And, the Jewish Community Online reports “The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities has been vocal against the ban. Dr Herbert Winter, its president, said: “As Jews we have our own experience. For centuries we were excluded: we were not allowed to construct synagogues. We do not want that kind of exclusion repeated.””

Aziz Poonawalla has added an important article “Jews and Muslims in Europe must make common cause” in which he notes:  “The Swiss minaret ban is a kind of canary in the coal mine. It’s worth noting that though Islamophobia is driven by fear, whereas anti-Semitism is driven by hate, the functional expression of both in European society follows very similar trends. The self-styled defenders of Western Civilization want to forget that anti-Semitism found its ultimate expression in Europe not centuries ago, but mere decades - and the same passions exploited today against muslims run the risk of reigniting the same old hatreds that still percolate beneath the surface of “modern, civilized” Europe.    There is hard data to support the argument that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are linked. The Pew Global Attitudes Project is an invaluable reference; last September they released a report (full PDF; summary) which showed an alarming increase in unfavorable opinions of both jews and muslims alike in all the major European countries (but not in the US or Britain).”  Read the full article for more information.

Alexander Higgins reports that “Geneva’s main mosque was vandalized Thursday when someone threw a pot of pink paint at the entrance. Earlier this month, a vehicle with a loudspeaker drove through the area imitating a muezzin’s call to prayer, and vandals damaged a mosaic when they threw cobblestones at the building.”

RFE reports that Danish and Dutch Populist Parties Want Referendums On Minaret Ban in their countries also.  And, the Mail reports that Italy may follow Switzerland with referendum on Islamic minarets

Ahmed Rehab has written an important article, Swiss Radicalization: A Sign of Things to Come?,  in which he says“Today, I cannot help but wonder: had it not been for Germany’s tolerance of the demonization of Jews in the early decades when it then seemed mundane and uneventful, would a crime as outlandish as the “final solution” ever have found the mass acceptance that it did further down the line?    Worth mentioning is that despite the lessons learned from the Holocaust, Europe’s only indigenous Muslim minority could not itself escape genocide a few decades later—the first and only genocide to occur on European soil since World War II.    So what about today’s breezes of intolerance whisking through the continent?    In the United Kingdom, the far-right British Nationalist Party (BNP), a splinter group of the Whites-only British National Front (BNF) is experiencing a new surge. The far-right Dutch Party for Freedom, whose leader Geert Wilders advocates banning the Quran and curbing Muslim religious freedom, placed second in a recent election in the Netherlands. In France and Austria, far-right political groups spouting anti-Muslim rhetoric are also gaining ground. The SVP, the group behind the minaret ban and a poster campaign depicting white sheep kicking black sheep out of Switzerland, is now Switzerland’s biggest political party. Reports show that racism is on the rise in Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe. Astroturf groups that openly call for the demonization for Muslims such as ACT! for America, SANE, SIOA, and SIOE are becoming a dime a dozen. Vandalism of Muslim cemeteries and mosques and hate crimes are happening more frequently. In Germany, a Hijab-wearing woman was stabbed to death in front of her three-year-old child while seeking justice in a German court against the perpetrator who had hurled racist slurs at her in a public playground a few days earlier. Stephan Kramer, General Secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany subsequently deplored the “largely unchecked hate propaganda against Muslims.” Throughout Europe, anti-Muslim rhetoric expressed in editorials, columns, campaign ads, hate blogs, and political cartoons is on the rise.”

first published 12/1/09