You will probably have heard that this week the Swiss had a referendum on minarets, the towers often seen above mosques, and that the majority voted in favour of banning their construction. I understand from a conversation with a Swiss friend of mine that it all started when a minaret got planning permission, it went up through the appeals process and somehow made it to a national referendum.
I am absolutely shocked at this decision, but I’m even more shocked by the reactions of some people in the UK. People who are normally rational. It is a thoroughly illiberal and in my opinion discriminatory decision on the part of the Swiss voters.
One of the first arguments I heard was about the noise level of the call the prayer, which is often done from the minaret, and I have a multi-faceted response to this. Firstly in Switzerland the issue was not about the noise levels, I understand that barely came up at all. This is not why 57% of voters backed the ban.
Secondly, in Edinburgh I live and study close to the Central Mosque, which has a minaret, and I’ve never once heard a call to prayer. Either it’s so quiet that it doesn’t bother anyone, or they don’t do it. In any case it’s quite a nice addition to the architecture of the area, and reflects the mixture of culture in the area of the city, which has a fairly high proportion of muslims. There are also plenty of churches there, many more churches than I imagine would be proportional to the number of Christians. Meanwhile, where I live in Malaga, I’m quite close to the Cathedral which rings on the hour, and just before 6pm there’s a 5-minute long peal. I don’t mind it.
In addition, the noise level is no reason to prohibit the construction of minarets. You could just have a law about noise levels. If the problem is not the minaret but the noise level, then why have a law about minarets? Similarly there is nothing stopping a mosque still making the call to prayer without a minaret, so it doesn’t even solve the problem. I understand that Switzerland already has very strict noise control laws so noise really isn’t the issue.
One of my contentions with the decision is that it’s totally unneccesary. A blanket ban on the construction means that if someone wanted to build a minaret in a field, miles away from anyone, so that noone is affected by it except the people who want to be, they wouldn’t be able to, for no good reason. As it was, if someone was affected by the construction of a minaret, they could complain during the planning permission procedure, and chances are it wouldn’t be built. Indeed the BBC report linked to above says that the vast majority of minarets didn’t get planning permission as it was! This result just means that the minaret would also be banned in areas where the local residents don’t mind.
So after that I’ve seen some more worrisome objections to the construction of minarets. Suggestions have been made that an area where local residents don’t mind may be Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. I had a conversation on this issue with my brother who said that he didn’t feel comfortable around mosques, because they’re in there plotting how to blow us up. Others have said that mosques don’t fit in with European architecture. So we get to the real motives here, and although I don’t usually like the term, I will happily call it Islamophobia. People don’t want minarets because they don’t want muslims in Europe. Fuddy-duddies are afraid of change and they want to send muslims back to where they came from, even though many were born right here in Europe, and many will not agree with the theocratic regimes in those Islamic countries. I imagine one of the reasons many muslims do come to Europe is because we enjoy these kinds of freedoms.
Do we not want to live in a Europe where minorities are protected from discrimination? The big danger with democracy, as I’m sure we all know, is to avoid a tyranny of the majority. That is exactly what we have in this situation. I have no problem expecting religious groups to follow the same rules as everyone else, as I’m sure I’ve demonstrated on this blog on many occasions. But this law specifically targets muslim architecture, a special case is being made against muslims. It does not merely ban large towers that could potentially be used for making a lot of noise, which would also affect all kinds of bell-towers. That kind of law I could understand, although I think it would be unneccesary. As it is, this is nothing more than poorly-disguised xenophobia.