The Swiss minaret ban and other trends for Islam in Europe
Switzerland’s vote to ban minarets on mosques there raises the question of whether anything similar might happen elsewhere in Europe. Researching this for an analysis of the vote today, I found experts distinguished between actually banning an Islamic symbol such as the minaret and using the minaret example to fan voters’ fears and boost a (usually far-right) party’s chances at the polls. It seems Switzerland’s trademark direct democracy system makes it possibly the only country in Europe where both seem possible right now.
(Photo: Vote “yes” posters in Zurich’s main train station, 26 Oct 2009/Arnd Wiegmann)
This distinction could become more important in coming months as far-right parties, as they are expected to do, try to exploit the minaret ban to rally support for their anti-immigration policies. The Swiss far right has already suggested going for a ban of full facial veils (aka burqas and niqabs) next. Marine Le Pen, deputy leader of France’s National Front, has called for a referendum in France not only on minarets, but also on immigration and a wide array of other issues linked to Muslims. Filip Dewinter, head of Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, said he wanted to change zoning laws there to ban “buildings that damage the cultural identity of the surrounding neighbourhood”. It remains to be seen how far they can get with these demands.
At the same time, the consensus reaction from politicians and the press across Europe today was critical of the Swiss vote. Most of the excited calls for more action come from fringe parties the majority parties keep at a distance (except the Northern League, which is part of Silvio Berlusconi’s government in Italy). Referendums are not as easy to stage in other European countries and are even banned in Germany, where the up-and-coming team of Hitler andGoebbels used them before 1933 to rally support for the Nazi Party.
Muslims in Europe were naturally shocked by the vote and worried about what might come next. The possibility of further pressure on them cannot be ignored because globalisation is forcing European societies to deal with increasing religious, ethnic and cultural diversity. While not denying that pressure, which naturally does not make life welcoming for Muslims here, let’s look at a few trends that seem to get drowned out in the headlines.
The first is that mosques are now part of the European landscape. There were some quite raw confrontations over them in the 1980s and 1990s in the countries with bigger and older Muslim communities such as France, Britain and Germany. There are still some heated debates, as the uproar over the plan for a large Turkish mosque in Cologne showed. But for the most part, those mosque projects have gone ahead. In the Cologne case, despite repeated criticism and far-right protests, the new mosque will have two 55-meter minarets — tall for an average church, but nothing like the 157-meter spires above the city’s famous Catholic cathedral.
(Image: Comparitive heights of Cologne cathedral and planned mosque/DITIB)
Just like a bell tower or spire is normal but not necessary for a church, the minaret and the loud public call to prayer — both regular features in Muslim countries — are optional elements for mosques. Almost no mosques in Europe use loudspeakers for the adhan, preferring to keep the call to prayer within the mosque, and many of them do without a minarets or agree to shorten their planned heights to make them fit into the local cityscape. These details can be negotiated constructively, if both sides — repeat, both sides — bring the necessary good will to the table.
Another fact is that there is now roughly enough mosque space for Europe’s Muslims, according to recent estimates, so the phase of active expansion of mosques and prayer rooms — which created the initial tensions with majority populations — may be waning. In some areas, a new one has started as Muslim communities take root and want to “trade up” from makeshift prayer rooms to better and more visible mosques. That can create new tensions. This was the case in Cologne, where Turkish-German Muslims are swapping a mosque set up in a former factory for the elegant new purpose-built mosque that caused so much controversy. But these controversies take place in cities where many locals now know some Muslim neighbours and take their side in the conflict. Do difficulties remain? Sure. But do situations develop? Certainly. Many critical commentators don’t take that dynamism enough into account.
One researcher who does see the changes going on is Stefano Allievi, an Italian sociologist who has made a name as a leading observer of Islam in Europe. Earlier this month, he published the 102-page report that I mention in my analysis, Conflicts over Mosques in Europe: Policy Issues and Trends. He sees the recent rise in populist agitation against Islam in Europe and thinks it could increase. But beneath the surface, he finds interesting signs of integration of Islam into European societies. A lot of this is happening at the grass-roots level, below the radar of most headline writers, but it is taking place. Take a close look at his report (here in PDF) for a better idea of how this is playing out.
Probably because reporting on Islam in Europe rather than theorising about it is part of my job, I have never been convinced by the alarmist “Eurabia” thesis that Muslim immigration will turn Europe Islamic within a few generations, subjecting the non-Muslim local population to a religious subjugation called “dhimmitude”. Although it is much more sophisticated, I also don’t agree either with Christopher Caldwell’s book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, which sees an army of fervent Muslim believers challenging a sceptical and spineless majority of post-Christian Europeans. As the prominent British Islam scholar Malise Ruthven put it in the latest New York Review of Books, Caldwell “takes an essentialist perspective of a primordial religion impervious to change, as if he were oblivious of the way that essentialist views of religion have long been under sustained intellectual attack”. He rejects what the British scholar Aziz al-Azmeh calls “the cliché of a homogenous collectivity innocent of modernity, cantankerously or morosely obsessed with prayer, fasting, veiling (and) medieval social and penal arrangements”.
The integration of Islam in Europe has not been easy and will continue to create tensions and misunderstandings for some time to come, on both sides of the supposed divide. But this is a dynamic process that changes all actors involved, sometimes in contradictory ways, and it is better reflected in Allievi’s long report than in many of the short but alarming stories most readers will find about it.