The Swiss minaret vote

December 4, 2009

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.

Rowan Williams and Sharia Law

February 11, 2008

There are 2 things I’d like to blog on today but I think I’ll do the other one tomorrow. I’m on a reading week in 2 of my subjects so I’ll have a bit of time.

Anyway there’s been a lot of controversy across the UK this week because the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has said that Sharia Law is ‘unavoidable‘ in Britain, and that he would encourage parts of it to be incorporated into British Law in order to aid social cohesion. This is rather difficult for me because I’m going to defend his position from the attacks I’ve heard most commonly on online forums discussing the issue.

First of all, a lot of people have been saying things like “why should we follow Sharia Law when it oppresses women and has lots of other human rights issues associated with it?” That’s the very definition of straw-man argument. Dr Williams hasn’t said that we should oppress women or cut off people’s hands or whatever, he’s merely suggested incorporating certain aspects of it. Presumably that would mean taking the good bits rather than the bad, so we shouldn’t think about what he’s asking for as bringing Sharia Law, intact, to Britain.

The next one I’ve noticed is something like “if they want to come to this country they should stop trying to change Britain and abide by British Law”. There is a general widespread assumption which associates Islam with a geographical region in the Middle East. There are plenty of Muslims who are British, they’re not all immigrants. Just because Sharia Law might be active in places in the Middle East, doesn’t mean that British Muslims have all come here from there. To take this thinking further, now that it’s clear that many Muslims are British, would people who make this assertion also deny British people of other ethnic or social groups the right to request changes in legislation?

For example, last year gay people in Britain won the right to civil partnerships. Was this wrong? Should they have just accepted their lot and “abided by British Law”, and stopped trying to change Britain? No, I don’t think so. Just as British homosexuals have the right to request changes in legislation to accommodate themselves better, so do British Muslims have the right to request legislation to accommodate themselves better. If everyone stopped trying to change Britain, then we’d still be in an absolute monarchy stuck with slavery and strict blasphemy laws, and only landowners would have the vote.

When I first heard the news, my first concern was for the rule of law, and I’ve heard many people making similar statements. You can’t have one system of law for some people and another for others. Everyone within British jurisdiction should live by the same laws, otherwise the system becomes unworkable. 2 legal systems would also fail to aid social cohesion, because it could only be a divisive force. I think I was remembering the similar situation they have in Ontario, Canada, whereby in order to save on court time, two individuals may agree to arbitrate a civil dispute using any form of authority that they both recognise, most commonly religious law.

But we’re being unfair here. Dr Williams has said nothing about having 2 parallel systems of law, merely incorporating aspects of Sharia Law into our own system. There would be no such problem and the rule of law would remain intact. Our law is fluid and it would just be a change in legislation, just like any other.

So it sounds like I’m all for it, doesn’t it? Not exactly, I just think the arguments that are being used against him are characteristic of editorials in The Sun and really 2 dimensional. I have no objection to what he’s saying, but I don’t see the point in suggesting it. Surely the aspects of Sharia Law that would be desirable in our system are things that we’ve already thought of and are already part of our law? So we’re either taking positive aspects that we’ve already got legislation on, or we’re taking negative aspects that are undesirable.

The way he thinks it would aid social cohesion tells me that he thinks the mere fact that it would be taken from Sharia would tell Muslims that we’re listening to them, so in effect all he’s suggesting is that we take our existing laws and point a big arrow at it, saying “look, this is the same as this in Sharia Law! We value our Muslim citizens”, thereby Islamifying our laws to make them look more appealing. Which isn’t really doing anything, so why’s he suggesting it?

In any case I think he was pretty stupid to bring this up. He’s fully aware how many racists and xenophobes there are in this country, and he’s bringing a giant hammer down on his own head. The suggestion is just going to fuel hatred for Muslims in anti-Muslim groups, and possibly allow them to gain support. It was a stupid thing to say.

Afterthought: As a related aside, I’d like to make it clear that just because a piece of moral guidance comes from a religious source, doesn’t mean that I’m going to disagree with it. I personally agree with many of the teachings of Jesus, and I’m sure I would with many of Mohammed’s if I took the time to read them, but I will make up my own mind in each individual instance and won’t take guidance merely on authority.