Minarets and Slender Arguments

If it did nothing else, Switzerland’s vote to ban the building of minarets drew attention to Europe’s identity crisis. The Swiss — like the French, or the Germans, or the British for that matter — are clearly worried about the Muslims living among them.

The Swiss vote (which may end up getting knocked down by the European Court of Human Rights) has succeeded in shifting the focus away from the social and economic problems of immigration and toward religion. To put the full weight of Europe’s cultural identity crisis on a slender spire of traditional architecture meant risking a dangerous debate, which has now erupted, and not only in Switzerland.

Previous debates about the role of Islam in Europe involved issues other than religion. The 2004 French ban on head scarves in schools was about the submission of women; the 2005 publication of Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad was about free speech.

A minaret, by contrast, is no more and no less than a symbol. Other religious symbols draw protest — a nativity scene in front of City Hall, say, or a cross on a mountaintop — but they, unlike the minaret, are not part of a house of worship.

Yet the minaret is being outlawed in the heart of Europe — to scattered applause in neighboring countries.

Somehow, a referendum about Islamic architecture in a country of 7.8 million with just four minarets and 400,000 Muslims struck a nerve across Europe. It is worth nothing that the referendum was supported mostly by rural voters, whose fear of Islamic aggression comes more from ignorance than experience. It’s a safe bet that many have never seen a minaret, except on alarmist campaign posters where they are depicted as comic-book missiles.

As it happens, national identity is now a topic of intense debate in several European countries.

Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, has acknowledged that it was a mistake to treat immigration as a taboo subject. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has organized a nationwide discussion over what it means to be French, but deliberately skirted the question of religion.

It’s understandable that many people in Europe, and not just Muslims, would see the Swiss vote as a case of the cat being out of the bag.

“It is a completely irrational issue, because a minaret can’t harm anyone, but it’s very rational politically, because it sells well for a certain electorate,” said François Heisbourg, director of the Foundation of Strategic Studies, a research institute in Paris.

Suddenly, people are expressing views that they once would have considered racist or intolerant. In a survey taken the day after the Swiss vote by the Parisian polling agency Ifop, 41 percent of French people questioned said they opposed the construction of mosques, up from 22 percent in 2001. On the question of building minarets, 46 percent were opposed.

There are an estimated 20 million Muslims among the European Union’s 500 million people, some of them native (mainly in the Balkans), many of them already second- or even third-generation in France, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, among others. Islam is now Europe’s second-biggest religion.

One source of the fear of Muslims — a theme that keeps coming up in print and in conversation — is Europeans’ deep and complicated resentment of an unfamiliar, historically hostile religion that is perceived as a direct challenge to Christianity, Europe’s dominant faith.

In this view, disputed by many church leaders, the contest becomes a kind of zero-sum game — leaders from Italy’s xenophobic Northern League party, for example, propose to put a crucifix on the Italian flag.

There are other explanations for the widespread unease with Islam: its frequent association with jihad and terrorism; the demands by Muslims for special considerations that go against the European norm, such as segregation by gender at public swimming pools; practices like polygamy, which is illegal in many Western countries; and a sense that some Muslims do not value, or even repudiate, values that are at the core of European civilization, such as free speech and the separation of church and state.

None of these issues has anything to do with minarets, which are generally built alongside Europe’s large urban mosques, where the imams are usually moderate establishment figures. Those imams who preach jihad don’t do it from minarets. Indeed, extreme imams are more typically found in storefront mosques.

Europe’s ability to integrate its Muslim citizens is one of the continent’s major social challenges. Stigmatizing religions is not a helpful starting point. Most experts, the police and even those who took part agree that the riots in France’s suburban ghettoes in 2005 had more to do with the failure of social policies, rather than a resurgent Islam.

Issues like minarets or the burqa — the head-to-toe garment worn by a small number of Muslim women that is being targeted by President Sarkozy — are beside the point of that bigger social challenge.

As an editorial in Le Monde said last week, the burqa, however offensive it may be to a woman’s dignity, is hardly a threat to secularism, the keystone of the French republic. According to a weirdly precise report by a French domestic intelligence agency, it is worn today by exactly 367 French women.

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