One of the pillars of Western democratic societies is tolerance, particularly in issues regarding minorities who have different opinions and lifestyles from the rest of the society. Minorities’ different opinions, though strange for the majority, are normally respected. It is believed this is a right for them because of a possibility of validity for those opinions. However, when it comes to Muslims,this right most of the time is rejected.
On Sunday, October 29, 2009, Swiss voters supported a proposal to ban construction of minarets on Muslim mosques, with 57% in favor of the ban. The ban was initially proposed by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP). “This vote was against minarets as symbols of Islamic power,” says Martin Baltisser, SVP’s General Secretary. There are 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland, and Islam is the second largest religion. However, there are only four minarets in the whole country. Minarets are just parts of an Islamic traditional architecture for mosques remained from centuries ago. No one, in Islamic countries, regards it as a source for power. It’s mere seen from a historical and artistic point of view, and nothing more. However, there could be the danger, in Western societies, if once Muslim minorities are given the concept that minarets on a mosque is an identity for them to separate them from the rest of the society, and a tool for some to leverage in raising Muslim’s religious emotions for using it to reach their illegitimate goals.
Switzerland has been always seen as a peaceful country. The Swiss Muslims are relatively moderate people among other Muslims of the world. Even in recent years, while Islamic extremists have been targeting many parts of the world, yet, we have not witnessed any attack in that country. However, won’t the ban on construction of minarets have the risk of a reaction from the Swiss Muslim community; another reason for Muslim extremists, from around the world, to further justify the West as an enemy; and, raising hatred among moderate Muslims?
It is essential to understand Muslims’ expectations and interpretations of their identity within the western societies. When, I first opened my account on Facebook, I made “friend” with a girl, from Washington D.C. In her profile photo, she had put on a scarf that made her look like an Arab girl. I asked if where she was from. She said she was Afghan. And, when I expressed my surprise, she gave me pages of lectures that, yes, she was a Muslim and Muslim girls must be like this and that. I was more surprised when I saw that how an Afghan girl from Washington D.C. was giving me lecture about Islam, while I have grown up in one of the most religious cities among Islamic countries, and one of the centers of Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, she did not know much about how girls behave in Islamic countries; and it seemed she did not care either. Because, the contradiction is this that in Islamic countries, girls, by their own will or from fear, do not put their photos on a public Website to show off themselves with their scarves! Actually, scarf for that girl was a symbol for the identity by which she had a chance to express herself in the society, from which she had been once rejected. The more the society was banning her from scarf, the more she would be determinant to wear it. Similarly, it seems this is what the French secular government does. By not allowing girls to dress in the way to demonstrate a religious identity in the public sphere, it teaches them that scarf is an identity for the isolated minority group they are living in.
Scarf and minarets are nothing but parts of women’s clothing and Islamic architectural heritage. They are similar to any other kinds of things like them. It would be funny to talk about their danger, the same way it is funny when, in some Islamic countries like Iran, necktie is considered dangerous for the society. Nor scarf neither necktie is dangerous; even if they are considered as symbols for Islamic and Western identity. Even, it is expected they are welcomed as examples of diversity in a Western society; what that essentially makes the Western countries distinguished as democratic and pluralistic societies. However, when minority groups, like Muslims in western societies, are not tolerated for their lifestyles, they will tend to separate themselves from the rest of the society. They will start building their own identities, in the form of clothing in a special way or building minarets; and become isolated more and more in their own communities. In spite of geographically living in a modern Western country, they are living in an island, far from the society.
In Islamic countries, that I have ever lived, people normally do not care about minarets, in their routine lives, as they have become as normal as part of a building. In whole of my life, I do not recall I have ever stopped in front of a mosque and look at its minarets, with pride, and said, yes, this is the reason of my existence! I am wondering to know who tells Muslims in Western societies that minarets are so important.
The ban of construction of minarets in Switzerland is an example, illustrating, how integration of Muslim communities in Western societies is more complicated than other minorities. In addition, it clearly demonstrates how misunderstandings could be easily made. I think most of those young Muslims, who are absorbed in extremist groups, have once experienced a failed effort in being integrated and accepted as citizens of a society, which tolerance is not respected towards them.