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.