A gift to extremism
Amara Lakhous 8 December 2009

“This is not a vote against Islam but only against minarets.” This was the explanation provided by the Swiss Minister of Justice, Evelyne Widmer-Schlumpf, on the subject of the anti-minaret referendum. It is hard to take her seriously since minaret means mosque, and mosque means Islam. Swiss Green Party Leader Ueli Leuenberger instead made a more credible statement, “Muslims have not just been slapped, this has had the effect of a punch in the face.”

Just like crucifixes for Christians, minarets are one of Islam’s distinctive symbols. Minarets have a number of very important characteristics. First. They are linked to mosques, God’s house, a place of worship, but also a meeting place for Muslims. They are not only a religious but also a social and cultural reference point. Second. They are visible from a distance due to their height and this helps the faithful coming from out of town to get their bearings and feel safe. For Muslims the presence of minarets means being in a ‘friendly land’. Third. In the past, when loudspeakers did not exist, the muezzin climbed to the top five times a day to call the faithful to prayer. Today, the muezzin’s job is not so hard, since a normal voice is sufficient. Symbology however remains and is a crucial element in all religions.

Minarets are therefore not an ideological whim like the burqa or the burkini, but instead the expression of a religion that with difficulty is in search of legitimisation in the European public sphere. The problem concerns the visibility of Muslims as a minority. In Switzerland they are 5% of the population and many have been welcomed as political refugees and are well-integrated in society. Why are they now seen as a threat rather than a resource? Why do the four existing minarets in Switzerland have such a disturbing effect? One must observe that the vote was the result of an islamophobic campaign by the extreme right, collecting 100 thousand signatures in a year and a half for this referendum, describing minarets as the symbol of a “claim to political-religious power.” I believe that this is not a religious issue but a political one involving the influencing of voters who fear Islam. It would not be wrong to state that the fundamental objective of this referendum was to affect the 400 thousand Muslims living in Switzerland and oblige them to invisibility, since the minaret is a powerful symbol of visibility in the public sphere.

There is great suspicion that the Swiss ban on minarets is only a excuse for preventing the building of mosques. Why hide behind a minaret? It is a clear violation of the right of Muslim citizens to have their own places of worship. This is why criticism from the EU, the Vatican and from Amnesty International is more than justified. In Italy the Northern League exalted, Minister for the Interior Mr. Maroni asked the political world to listen to the voice of the people. Euro MP Mario Borghezio instead expressed hope that a referendum would be held with one simple question “Mosques or no mosques.” I believe it is crucial to repeat that there are over a million Muslim immigrants living in Italy who pay their taxes. Furthermore, there are more than 10 thousand Italian citizens who have converted to Islam. Do these poor Muslims have the right to have their own places of worship, to openly express their religion or not? This should be the question posed in a national referendum.

The risk is that this might trample the Italian Constitutional guarantees of freedom of worship. Article 8 states “Everyone has the right to freely profess their religious faith in any form, individual or in groups, to proselytise and worship in private and in public, on condition that this respects public decency.” I believe that the Swiss approach is not only damaging to Switzerland’s image but also because it fuels the atmosphere of fear and the clash between the Muslim world and Western countries. The Speaker of the House, Gianfranco Fini, is perfectly right when he says that the result is “a gift to Islamic extremism.” It will, for example, now be easier for al-Qaeda to confirm the usual thesis according to which Muslims all over the world are persecuted by Christians. No doubt a threatening video against Switzerland is already being prepared by Bin Laden or Zawahiri.

Translated by Francesca Simmons