Monday, 30 November 2009

Swiss democracy, mosques, minarets and keeping the Faith

The Swiss people are voting in a referendum today. It's not a normal referendum about widening roads or spending money. Rather, it's to decide whether mosque minarets should be banned from Swiss skylines.

The Swiss form of democracy is unique. The referendum is a normal feature of Swiss political life. Issues of national importance are resolved via a national referendum.
The present Swiss government is opposed to the ban. Supporting the ban is the right wing Swiss People's Party. Unfortunately, 'Islamophobia' is a reality in many parts of the world today so the outcome of the referendum is uncertain.
The result will help define relations between Muslim minorities and non-Muslims in European countries other than just Switzerland.
The minaret debate is a necessary intellectual process in the journey of Islam – Christian relations. Muslims and non-Muslims alike need to discuss and agree upon the role of Islam in societies with strong Christian traditions.
All nations live with a historical reality foisted upon them by their geography.
The destruction of the centuries old Babri Masjid in India in 1992 had nothing to do with the global war on terror or 9/11. It was the result of an ongoing complex Hindu-Muslim relationship which started centuries ago.
Similarly in Europe, the relationship with Islam must be placed in the context of Europe's notion of encroachments all the way to Vienna in 1683 by the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

The Battle of Vienna by Juliusz Kossak Sobieski

If there was true secularism in Switzerland (or any other society) then the referendum will not be taking place. In secular society mosques, churches, temples and other places of worship will freely coexist.
Yet, it is a legitimate debate. 95% of the Swiss people are non-Muslim. In a free society they are masters of their own fate. If the Swiss do not like the look, shape, and symbolism of the minaret, then foreigners cannot tell them otherwise.
Islam teaches that a place of worship is anywhere a Muslim wishes it to be. Travellers to the Islamic world will notice people saying their prayers on the side of a road, inside offices, on roofs of houses (it is cooler outdoors!), pretty much anywhere handy.
For the faithful a mosque is nice to have, especially for the Friday sermon. But a living room is just as acceptable. As long as Swiss Muslims are not denied the right to practice their religion it is hard to argue that a serious miscarriage of justice has occurred.
In Switzerland, Muslims have the ability to fast, abstain from alcohol, eat halal food and pursue their religious faith with the intensity they desire. Piety may not be as convenient in societies where pubs are more accessible than mosques but religion is not a matter of convenience.
While there are many Muslim countries where sizeable Christian minorities live peaceably, it will be foolhardy to suggest that Christians can freely build churches wherever they desire. A church in a Muslim country is just as contentious as a mosque in a Christian nation.

A silhouette of one of Istanbul's many mosques - and minarets

In the final analysis, I doubt if Lake Geneva's skyline will look like Istanbul's anytime soon whatever the outcome of Switzerland's referendum.


  1. Hi Imran,

    One should have the freedom to pursue his/her own belief. People usually are afraid of what they don't understand. The debate is the first step to introduce Muslim to the country. Once people understand Muslim is about peace, they will accept it.

    - Lee

  2. Hi Lee,

    It is always great to see your comments on the blog.

    You are right about Islam as a religion. Unfortunately, there are many among us who have a distorted view of certain aspects of the religion. They have given Islam and Muslims a bad reputation. Often it is an uphill struggle to remind people that an entire religious group cannot be typecast in the mold of a few crazies ...

    Thank you for understanding and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Kind regards,