Switzerland’s recent vote to ban the construction of new minarets has shocked and angered Muslims around the world. But the controversial move also reflects a growing sense of unease among other Europeans who have trouble coming to terms with Islam’s increased visibility.
In the small Swiss town of Langenthal, the battle over the minarets has been fought, and there seems to be no hope of reconciliation between the victors and the vanquished. “I feel abused and injured as a person,” says Mutalip Karaademi. “We wanted to hit a symbol,” says Daniel Zingg, “and we hit it.”
Zingg has prevented the minaret that Karaademi wanted to build, and has managed to make it illegal for any other minarets to be built in Switzerland. He was one of the authors of the referendum that was passed by the Swiss on Nov. 29 with 57.5 percent of the votes. The constitution will now contain the following sentence: “The building of minarets is banned.”
The Swiss decision has shocked Europe and the world because its ramifications go far beyond the building of minarets – they also concern the identity of an entire continent. This was a referendum on Western society’s perception of Islam as a threat. The issue is generating intense debate: Just how much of Islam is predominantly Christian Europe prepared to accept? The decision by the otherwise so tolerant Alpine country reveals the deep-seated fear of an Islam that is becoming increasingly visible.
Are Muslim immigrants threatening European values? This is a concern shared by many Europeans across the continent. Surveys last week revealed that 44 percent of Germans oppose the construction of minarets, followed by 41 percent of the French. Fifty-five percent of all Europeans see Islam as an intolerant religion.
Does the Swiss vote reveal an attitude that a majority in Europe would also support if given the opportunity?
This would also explain why criticism of the vote was so vehement. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the United Nations and the Vatican were all equally up in arms. They said that the Swiss vote violated the principles of freedom of religion and non-discrimination. Turkey’s European Union minister called on Muslims to invest their money in Turkey instead of Switzerland, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it reflects “an increasingly racist and fascist stance in Europe.”
But the vote was welcomed and cheered in comments on some Internet blogs, and right-wing populists like the head of the Dutch Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders, and France’s far-right National Front party voiced their approval. Roberto Castelli, a top politician in Italy’s Northern League said: “The Swiss have once again given us a lesson in civilization. We have to send a strong signal to stop pro-Islamic ideology.”
For the time being, what has been stopped is the minaret of the Islamic religious community in Langenthal. Mutalip Karaademi, 51, an ethnic Albanian who emigrated from Macedonia 26 years ago, is standing in front of the building used by his religious association, a former paint factory on the outskirts of town. There is a wooden construction on top measuring 6.1 meters (20 feet) It shows the height of the planned minaret, the first one that cannot be built.
Karaademi is the leader of the local Islamic community, whose 130 members come from Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia. The small mosque has been here for 18 years. At the outset the minaret wasn’t so important, says Karaademi. It was simply an ornamental addition. But now it’s a matter of principle. He wants to take legal action – if necessary going all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, where it is very possible that the judges in Strasbourg will end up reversing the Swiss constitutional decision. He loves Switzerland, this model country, says Karaademi. But this ban is “racist and discriminating against us,” a scandal for the civilized world.
One Man’s Battle
The quiet winner of this battle is Daniel Zingg, 53, a balding man with wire-rimmed glasses. He’s sitting in a pizzeria across from the railway station in Langenthal and speaking in a hoarse whisper. The minarets, those “spearheads of the Sharia,” those “signs of territory newly conquered by Islam,” can no longer be built, he says, and thus the Swiss have solved a problem that has already become seemingly intractable elsewhere, such as in the large cities of England and France. It’s a well-known fact that first come the minarets, then the muezzins, with their calls to prayer, the burqas and finally Sharia law, he says. According to Zingg, the ban is not directed against Muslims, although it is naturally true that “the Koran gives (people) the mission to Islamize the world, and the Muslims here have no other mission, otherwise they would not be Muslims.”
For the past 15 years, Zingg has been giving lectures in support of Israel and against Islam. He’s a politician with the ultraconservative Christian party, the Federal Democratic Union, which received 1.3 percent of the vote in the last election. He has never set foot in the mosque in his town because he has heard that anyone who walks barefoot in one becomes a Muslim. Zingg doesn’t want to take that risk.
One might wonder how a man like this, whose radical views certainly do not reflect the majority opinion in Switzerland, was able to win a majority for his cause. There is also the question of why a country that has very few problems with its roughly 400,000 Muslims would decide to take such a dramatic step.
Perhaps fears are growing and radical demands are becoming ever more popular because there is practically no open political debate on what place Islam will assume in Europe.
An estimated 15 million Muslims currently live in the European Union, or roughly 3 percent of the population. But this is more than at any other time in the past. Immigrants, most of whom came as guest workers decades ago, have brought Islam to Europe.
Can Europe still be Europe if, for instance, in 2050 most young people under the age of 15 in Austria are Muslims? And when Muhammad today is already the most common name for newborn boys in Brussels and Amsterdam, and the third most common in England?
An ‘Official Discussion of Islam’ and a Subterranean One
American author and journalist Christopher Caldwell recently published his latest tome, “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West,” a widely-read and skeptical book on Europe and its Muslim immigrants. What fascinates him about the result of the Swiss vote is the gap between the rejection of the ban in surveys and the considerable support that it received during the referendum. “It means there is an official discussion of Islam and that there is a subterranean discussion of it,” he says. “That should worry Europeans.”
Caldwell doesn’t sound the same alarmist tones in his book as other conservative authors who have dubbed the old continent as “Eurabia” and see it – due to higher birthrates among immigrants – as a future outpost of the “Islamic world empire.” But he also writes: “It is certain that Europe will emerge changed from its confrontation with Islam. It is far less certain that Islam will prove assimilable.”
Caldwell believes that Muslim immigrants have had greater difficulties than other groups integrating themselves into European society. On the one hand, only a minority can identify with political Islam, also due to the wars that the West has waged against Islamic terror over the past few years. On the other hand, their religion goes hand in hand with conservative attitudes toward women, family relationships, sexual freedom and the rights of gays and lesbians. These religious attitudes are problematic for many Europeans.
Caldwell says that Muslims are a small minority, but Europe is changing its structures because of them: “When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident and strengthened by common doctrines, it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter.”
Widespread Fears in Germany
Germany has yet to conduct a serious national debate on these issues. Instead the country has focused on Islamic headscarves, a topic which sparked a clash between the two cultures. For six long years the Germans grappled with the question of whether a teacher from Afghanistan could be allowed to wear a headscarf at her school in Baden-Württemberg. The case eventually went to the German Constitutional Court, which ruled that it was up to the individual states to issue legislation on headscarves. Since then teachers in half of Germany’s 16 states have been banned from wearing headscarves.
When there have been conflicts – such as over the construction of mosques – they have been carried out at a local level. This has usually led to very German solutions, in which development plans and zoning ordinances play a major role.
In the town of Kehl, near the French border, for instance, proposals to put up a mosque in a residential area were rejected. However, it was allowed to be built near the railway station, with a minaret exactly as high as the church tower. In other situations, not even a tiny minaret could be built, such as in Augsburg in Bavaria. Meanwhile, a citizens’ initiative in Cologne has failed to prevent the construction of a huge, central mosque – one of the largest in Europe.
But there are nevertheless widespread fears in Germany, as illustrated by the example of a church in Duisburg that was recently converted into a mosque. Members of the old church congregation ceremoniously handed over the house of worship to its new owners, “but in the pubs and in private conversations everyone complained that the Muslims were seizing power in Germany,” says Rauf Ceylan, a religious studies professor at the University of Osnabrück. He says that many Germans have a latent fear of Islam.
The British Paradox
Great Britain is the most disturbing example cited by many pessimists. Although just under 3 percent of the British population are Muslims, primarily from Pakistan and Bangladesh, nowhere else in Europe do so many of them live totally isolated from the rest of society – in cities like Bradford, Dewsbury and Leicester.
Most of the old, original English working-class residents have long since moved out of the district of Bury Park in Luton, 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of London. The streets are filled with women wearing niqabs, the Islamic full face veil that leaves only a slit for the eyes, and men with gray beards. There are halal butchers and 10 mosques. A minaret made of red English brick has been lovingly integrated into a row of houses. The muezzin calls the faithful to prayers over loudspeakers.
On the streets residents speak Bengali or Urdu. The community center offers naturalization courses. Mosques hold state-financed anti-terror courses that are designed to immunize young Muslims against the propaganda of the extremists. The neighborhood used to be frequented by guest Islamic preachers spouting hate and it was from here that four suicide bombers set off to attack London’s transport system and kill 52 people on July 7, 2005.
But many second, third and fourth generation Muslims have long-since moved beyond this milieu. They are extremely well educated, possess British citizenship, and work as doctors, lawyers and politicians.
The British state has done far more to accommodate the cultural needs of its Muslim citizens than any other European country. Muslim policewomen are allowed to cover their hair with a headscarf. It’s part of their uniform.
For the past two years, British Muslims have also been able to turn to Islamic arbitration tribunals that are based on Sharia law. Their decisions are legally binding for both parties in a conflict. If necessary, a British bailiff will come to enforce the sentence. This is unique in Europe.
These arbitration tribunals were the brainchild of Sheikh Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqi. His Sharia courts now hear cases in seven English cities and have nothing to do with hacking off hands or stoning people to death. They only deal with civil disputes, and only if both parties agree to the process. These tribunals have convened roughly 600 times over the past 12 months, dealing primarily with disputes among business partners, trouble in the neighborhood and even inheritance cases. They have ensured, says Siddiqi, that British Muslims can identify more strongly with Great Britain.
How Visible Can Islam Be in France?
Jocelyne Cesari, a French expert on Islam, calls the British situation a paradox: “On the one hand, there is a flourishing Muslim middle class, and at the same time this is the country with the largest number of Muslims living in isolated districts and espousing the most radical views.”
She sees no problems with Sharia arbitration tribunals, as long as they do not conflict with applicable laws. According to Cesari, compromises are acceptable in areas that do not infringe upon the majority and do not break any laws. “Multiculturalism does not mean that the old established majority has special rights,” she says, adding that Caldwell’s postulate that Islam is incompatible with European values is a mixture of half-truths and prejudices: “Muslims are definitely prepared to adapt – they often take a critical view of their own religion.”
But Cesari says that there is a struggle over the symbolic recognition of Islam. “During the first few decades, Muslims opened modest prayer rooms. Now they want venues where they can compete with Europe’s churches and cathedrals.” She says that since Christianity has increasingly retreated from the public sphere, many Europeans perceive the mosques as a provocation.
France is currently officially negotiating the question of how visible Islam is allowed to be within its borders. This debate is taking place in a windowless room in the basement of a parliamentary building in Paris. Dark leather armchairs are arranged in a circle, and in front of the wood-paneled main wall sits Andre Gerin, chairman of the parliamentary investigative committee on the “wearing of full-body veils.”
Gerin, a Communist, has been the mayor of the Lyon suburb of Venissieux for over 24 years. He is wearing a gray pinstriped suit with trousers that are too short. Gerin instigated this investigative committee, he says, because the burqa is threatening France’s republican ideals.
At Gerin’s right, sitting across from the members of the committee, is Tariq Ramadan, a controversial and clever Islamic philosopher and theologian with Swiss citizenship. Ramadan is wearing a dark suit and sporting a three-day beard. He opposes a law that would ban the burqa because he says it would only stigmatize Islam.
“Monsieur Ramadan,” Gerin says, leading into his first question, “is wearing the burqa a religious duty? Or do you see it, as we do, as a means of oppressing women?”
“No,” Ramadan replies, “there is no obligation to wear the burqa and there are certainly men who force their wives to wear the burqa against their will. But a law would only lead to more isolation.”
“What would you suggest then?”, asks the commission chairman. The application of existing laws, says Ramadan, of course a woman wearing a burqa would have to show her face during identity checks. “But we need to finally realize that Islam has become a French religion.”
Ramadan is the 145th expert that the committee has interviewed. For years he has been advocating a self-confident Islam in Europe, adapted to the demands of the modern age and compatible with European achievements like respect for human rights and democracy. His opponents say that Ramadan is a two-faced liar who is trying to lull the European public into a false sense of security.
Do Europeans Reduce Islam to the Burqa?
Gerin would like to initiate a debate on the issue of the degree to which France – with its strict separation of church and state – is willing to accommodate Islam. He says that he is only using the burqa as a catalyst. The French domestic intelligence service has identified only 367 women throughout the country who wear a burqa. Of all the problems associated with the up to 6 million Muslims in the country, burqas are probably the least of them.
Many religious Muslims accuse Europeans of equating Islam with the burqa, the burqa with the Taliban, the Taliban with Osama bin Laden. They say that people talk about them as if they were all Islamists, as if they had not already been living in the country for decades.
But Gerin has achieved his objective. In his hearing room the French Republic is struggling with the exception to the rule – in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity.
How can it be, asks Gerin, that we accept attacks on the personal liberty of anyone in our country? How can it be that policymakers have no answers to these questions? How is this possible in secular France?
Gerin is a Communist waging a campaign to defend republican ideals, and a mayor defending his city. But he is also a realist: “We are roughly 25 years behind schedule, but we finally have to accept that the Muslims have a right to settle here,” he says. “But they will have to adapt to our society.” The French debate over the burqa shares one thing in common with the minaret ban in Switzerland: They are both attacking a symbol, but they have another objective. They are driven by the hope that they can roll back the influence of Islam by limiting its visibility. It is easier to fight over sensitive issues than to deal with concrete problems – to squabble about girls who don’t participate in swimming classes, halal food in the company canteen and prayers during the work day. It is also a fairly impotent strategy.
A ‘Clash of Cultures’ in Belgium
In Antwerp and a number of other Belgian cities, for years women have been banned from veiling their faces. The police have already cautioned a number of women wearing niqabs and burqas. But actually the ban hasn’t been an issue here for quite some time now – in fact it’s hard to find Muslims who feel inclined to get upset about it.
By contrast, Islamic headscarves have been the source of a great deal of controversy in Antwerp. This is a cosmopolitan port city, but in recent local elections one-third of the voters supported Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), a right-wing political party with an anti-immigration platform. Three years ago, a socialist mayor was the first to issue a ban on headscarves in the public sector. Since September this ban has also included schoolchildren.
Karin Heremans, 46, is the principal of the Royal Antheneum of Antwerp, a prestigious secondary school that resembles a fortress in the heart of Antwerp. She is blonde and wears a low cut-silk dress and pink lipstick, making her pretty much the opposite of the girls in her school, most of whom are Muslims. They wear turtlenecks and headscarves, at least as far as the mirror that hangs in the school’s entrance hall, where the girls have to take off their headscarves. When she became the director of the school in 2001, only 10 days before 9/11, Heremans never would have thought that she would one day issue a ban on headscarves. But that’s when the “clash of the cultures” erupted, as she calls it, and by that she doesn’t mean the clash out there in the world, but rather the conflict right in her own schoolyard.
At first, teachers continued to talk to their students about Darwin, and there were fashion shows and even a field trip to Istanbul. Everything seemed possible. In 2005, Heremans even wrote a book in which she rejected a ban on headscarves and believed that cultural differences were an enrichment.
But as an increasing number of schools in Antwerp banned headscarves, more and more girls transferred to the Atheneum. It was the last school without a ban. Finally, girls came to school completely covered from head to foot, with long coats and gloves, and a representative of an Islamic organization stood at the entrance and noted which ones removed their headscarves in the school.
That’s when Heremans also banned the headscarves. “I was afraid we would become a Muslim school,” she says. Seventy out of 580 students left the school and Heremans was placed under police protection. Classrooms were trashed in protest. But in the school the girls removed their headscarves, and many of them have said it made them feel liberated.
“We have changed the word tolerance against reciprocity,” says Heremans. “Everyone who wants freedom of religion has to respect the freedom of religion of others.” There has to be inalienable values, such as gender equality, freedom of expression and religion, and respect, she says. A few days after Heremans issued her ban, the school board followed suit. Starting this coming year, headscarves – and all other religious symbols – are banned at all 700 state schools in Flanders. Many of the girls now attend Islamic schools or study at home.
Europe’s Greatest Challenge?
The headscarf controversy in Antwerp is one of the latest examples of the issues facing Europe. Can it preserve its values – and freedoms – by limiting personal freedoms?
Dealing with Islam is perhaps the greatest challenge facing Europe. If the Continent manages to preserve its own values without discriminating against Muslims, then a consensus on values can be achieved and European Muslims could become a model for the Islamic world. If it fails, however, Europe could betray its own values, and the populists could win and their simple solutions would fan the flames of the clash of cultures.
There are many arguments against the alarmists who fear that Europe is well on its way to becoming an Arab colony. The vast majority of Muslims adapt to their host country, are less religious than in their countries of origin, and the majority of them accept the prevailing culture. In addition, the fears of high birth rates among Muslim immigrants have proven to be exaggerated: In the second and third generations, these rates have dropped back down to the national average.
But sometimes fears are stronger than facts, and sometimes a ban on minarets has nothing to do with minarets. In the Swiss cities where Muslims and Christians have been coexisting for ages, the citizens’ initiative failed to garner the majority of votes. In the mountain canton of Appenzell-Innerrhoden, where only 500 Muslims live, 71 percent of voters supported the minaret ban.
In Langenthal, a small rural town where there were plans to build a minaret, the rate of support for the referendum almost exactly matched the Swiss national average.