Mona Eltahawy doesn’t just blast the Swiss for their human-rights hypocrisy after voting to ban new construction of minarets over the weekend. The Muslim essayist also takes the occasion to blast Muslim critics of the referendum for their sudden hue and cry over human rights themselves. In today’s Washington Post, Eltahawy makes the most important point of all, which is the pointlessness of it all:
My question for Switzerland and other European countries enthralled by the right wing: When did Saudi Arabia become your role model?
Even before 57.5 percent of Swiss voters cast ballots on Sunday to ban the building of minarets by Muslims, it was obvious that Switzerland’s image of itself as a land of tolerance was as full of holes as its cheese. When the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) came to power in 2007, it used a poster showing a white sheep kicking black sheep off the country’s flag. This was no reference to black sheep as rebels — the right wing doesn’t do cute — but to skin color and foreigners. Posters the SVP displayed before Sunday’s referendum showed women covered from head to toe in black, standing in front of phallic-looking minarets. Such racism preceded and fed into the bigotry that fueled the referendum.
Predictably, the election results sparked cries of “Islamophobia,” but the situation for Switzerland’s 400,000 Muslims is not (yet) dire. The four existing minarets were not affected by the vote, and there are still 150 mosques or prayer rooms in which to worship.
And that’s really the central pointlessness of this vote. Switzerland has only four minarets, and the referendum does nothing to those. It has over 150 places of Islamic worship, and it doesn’t bar the creation of more, either. The Swiss outlawed an architectural design, mainly as an expression of frustration over several years of incidents, including riots over editorial cartoons and the murder of Theo Van Gogh, among others, for criticism of Islam and radical Islamists. It’s almost an expression of utter impotence.
And that’s too bad, because as Eltahawy argues, we need more substantive debates over the problems radical Islam and shari’a law present to Western societies:
Raising the specter of “political Islam” or “creeping Islamicization” to frighten voters diminishes the concerns that ought to be discussed, such as an ideology’s opposition to many minority and women’s rights. And that’s where the difficult questions lie for Europe’s Muslims. They, too, have a right wing that breeds on fear and preaches an exclusionary and inward-looking Islam. It is the perfect foil for the non-Muslim political right wing on the continent.
Eltahawy then turns her rhetorical guns on Muslim protesters of the vote:
The Grand Mufti of Egypt, for example, denounced the ban as an “attack on freedom of belief.” I would take him more seriously if he denounced in similar terms the difficulty Egyptian Christians face in building churches in his country. They must obtain a security permit just for renovations.
Last year, the first Catholic church — bearing no cross, no bells and no steeple — opened in Qatar, leaving Saudi Arabia the only country in the Persian Gulf that bars the building of houses of worship for non-Muslims. In Saudi Arabia, it is difficult even for Muslims who don’t adhere to the ultra-orthodox Wahhabi sect; Shiites, for example, routinely face discrimination.
Bigotry must be condemned wherever it occurs. If majority-Muslim countries want to criticize the mistreatment of Muslims living as minority communities elsewhere, they should be prepared to withstand the same level of scrutiny regarding their own mistreatment of minorities.
Even for those who see Islam itself as an existential threat anywhere it resides, the minaret ban hardly addresses the issue. After all, terrorist recruiters don’t use minarets to attract and radicalize followers. It’s not the lofty architecture that makes people into crazed terrorists. The message of the ban is very much the same as Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Christians and Muslim minorities with their building code: they’re not welcome and should leave.
Events like these make me appreciate the wisdom of the First Amendment and the founders who established it. Through all of the passions of the American body politic, from Know-Nothings to today, that fundamental tenet of religious freedom has rescued us from serious and rather embarrassing missteps, such as the one taken by the Swiss this week. The US has around two million Muslims, the vast majority of which live peacefully in our communities. For those who do not, we trust our law-enforcement agencies to deal specifically with lawbreaking rather than conduct purges based on religious affiliation, which is how the Swiss should have left it.