Minarets in the Land of Freedom (Part two)

Minarets in the Land of Freedom (Part two)

In his recently published book Les Minarets de la Discorde. Eclairages sur un Débat Suisse et Européen, which discusses the controversy around minarets in Switzerland, Dr. Patrick Haenni gives an overview of the current debates on Islam in the West. European Muslims section presents this book to IOL readers through Mr. Husam Tammam’s two-part review. In Part 1, Mr. Tammam briefly described the initiative of banning the construction of minarets, the main reasons behind it, and the situation of Islam in the West nowadays. In this part, he gives a deep analysis explaining how the West, especially the politicians, sees the impact of the minaret as an Islamic feature on secular communities.

Minarets Under Analysis

Unlike many issues related to the Islamic identity, the issue of minarets in Switzerland has not provoked indignant reactions against the Swiss interests across the Islamic world as was the case with the hijab and the Prophet-defaming cartoons. It is more ironic to notice the obvious absence of the Salafi mobilization in support of the minaret cause. The Salafis themselves look upon the minaret as an abominable novelty, and the right-wing extremists have the same perception and believe that the minaret is not religiously important enough to justify its existence.

The right-wing extremists in Switzerland believe that the minaret is a political and religious feature. At the same time, for them, it signifies power and refers to the nature of Islamic expansion in the West, which implies a menace to Christian values and disruption of demographic equilibrium. On the other hand, Muslims are undecided due to the absence of organization, which is mingled with fear of the initiative’s impact on the status of Muslims in Switzerland.

However, the debate about minarets opens the door wide for questions relating to the cultural and ideological impact of the Islamic manifestations in Western societies. During such debate, voices of local and international influential politicians and society dignitaries highlight the status of the Islamic religious groups in the West. Meanwhile, the Muslim-Christian daily lifestyle gives concrete evidence that the nature of mutual relationships is much more complicated than the notion of ideological conflict.

Dimensions of the Minaret Cause

Legal Dimension 

Despite the deeply rooted democratic heritage in the Western culture, religious manifestations do represent a challenge that any state’s legal system has to face. There is a problem of incorporating the religiously oriented criteria into the extended legal and legislative heritage that even the various political systems adopting secularism have to deal with now. That problem has been inflated by the right-wing racists, along with some Anglican sectors, thereby driving it to be on top of the agenda for most European countries.

Within this legal dimension appear the political opportunities granted by the system to some influential politicians and socialists. These opportunities enable them to have an impact on the course of the political path and to submit some demands about the rights of the immigrants. For example, there is an inevitable linkage between nationality and the principle of citizenship. Based on that, when the right-wing extremists in Switzerland called for excluding foreigners from obtaining the Swiss nationality in 2004, the state refused to subject this call to popular referendum because of its incongruity with the international conventions.

However, this argument includes some other important political dimensions as it marginalizes some of the basic civil and human rights that constitute the essence of the state’s democratic concepts. Hence, it is clear that there are indirect effects that cause the natural liberal role of the state to change given that the state is the guarantor of individuals’ rights and guardian of all other interests of social groups.

According to the Western intellect, the state is eventually the product of a course of negotiation between various social groups. Nevertheless, in the end, this seems to exclude the immigrants’ right, particularly when it has to do with religious affiliation.

Sociopolitical Dimension 

It is the sociopolitical dimension that crystallizes the difference in perceiving the concept of integration for the immigrants (who also constitute religious groups). The policies of immigration are still tied up with the model of integration into the social context. There are two main approaches when it comes to immigration: The first is to recognize ethnic groups and multiculturalism, as is the case in the Netherlands and Britain. The second is to reject the grouping tendency and to impose a commitment to the popular secular values on the immigrants. Secularism in France is not only a political and constitutional principle, but also an ideology and a system of values.

Consequently, the immigration policies are affected by a number of internal and external variables. In the West, the ideological backgrounds of political parties (whether they belong to the right or left wings), along with the political culture prevailing in the society, play a role in consolidating the permanent immigration policies. Many influential politicians in the Western countries still believe that their countries are the cradle of human rights and that they have gone a long way in protecting them. Yet, practically, we notice that coexistence and tolerance (social, cultural, and religious) are in complete turmoil.

The integration policies as projected by the Western experiences are directed toward the immigrants in particular, but mostly toward Muslims, who constitute the largest minority. However, the Muslim situation presents the challenges mentioned earlier, in addition to some fears of Islam becoming more like a second religion in light of the growing number of its adherents. This increase in the numbers of Muslims is regarded by some influential politicians and society dignitaries as a threat to the demographic equilibrium between Muslims and Christians in the West, not to mention conversion to Islam, which bludgeons the deep core of Christian affiliation.

That is why integration for Muslims is a more sensitive issue than it is for other religious groups. For example, the integration problems facing Sikhs, Buddhists, or Hindus are not discussed as long as this integration process does not include any conversions to such man-made religions; consequently, the divine religions pose a clear “mental” challenge. For example, Christianity and Judaism had come up, after centuries of religious reforms, with some kind of religious conciliation between the New and Old Testaments, and this conciliation is embodied by an internationally conspicuous concordance. Meanwhile, Islam remains an intractable religion owing to its content, which seems to shake the nature and content of European Christianity, as well as the Israeli existence.

Global Dimension

Here, the global dimension dictates the possible model of relationship between Islam and the West within a framework of an international, transborder context. The state now is but one influential agent among other minor ones (extremist right wing and Anglican groups), in addition to other major agents (the European Union, international agreements, and partnership projects with the Islamic World). Moreover, the attitudes of the globalized communicative world are not in favor of media coverage of causes whose focus is on Islam. Added to that is the growing globalization essentially based on opening the borders, as well as the increasing movement of population toward the countries of the North.

Theoretical Argument

The relationship between religion and the other social aspects poses different questions that pertain to more than one domain of knowledge. However, the big theoretical question, which Haenni’s Les Minarets de la Discorde has not disregarded, relates to the position of religion and religious manifestations in the public affairs: Has religion become a private issue that is no more concerned with social dominance? Has it been divorced from culture, alienated from the institutional context to which it had adhered, and repudiated its social function?

It seems that the retrogression of religion is closely connected with the trend of the cultural and social breakup, which has had its impact on the other social arenas. The division of the religious domain into official and unofficial religious institutions and the emergence of separate domains of politics, economy, culture, and sociology have led to the diminution of the effects of religious criteria on the areas that had been incorporated into the globalization procession.

Consequently, the rebirth of religion into the world of modernity raises extensive arguments in the various cultural environments. Does this return mean restoring the power of the symbolic criteria of religion and their impact on the other social arenas, particularly those of economy and politics? Or will religion remain a private area only?

Islam and the West

By and large, Islam in the West will constitute one of the most important research areas for the following reasons: First, Muslims in the West are minorities inside countries that have deeply rooted democracy; second, there is a clear change in the nature of the Islamic movements there. Such a change is linked to the Islamic practices and criteria within a secular environment.

Nevertheless, the existence of Muslims in the West creates new dilemmas when it comes to the application of these religious criteria in the Western secular communities. Although the principle of citizenship presupposes the guarantee of freedom of religion within a pluralistic, democratic state, the issue is rather different when it comes to the Islamic criteria, owing to the legal and religious commitments obligated by the Islamic Shari`ah. In this case, a comparison is drawn between the state’s legal system and the Shari`ah rulings (most of which are religiously mandatory). Here comes the big dilemma: A number of political and social activists see these religious commitments as a threat to Western secularity, which propounds changing religion into a private domain.

Due to this fear of an Islamic domination over the West, there emerge some theoretical assumptions concerning the limits of integration particularly with regard to the fact that Islam is the second major religion after Christianity in terms of the number of its adherents — not only in Switzerland, but all over Europe.

This was the second and last part of the book review of Les Minarets de la Discorde. Eclairages sur un Débat Suisse et Européen. The Arabic translation of this book is now available on Arabic Islamonline.net.

The anti-minaret initiative to be voted on November 27 in Switzerland is the book’s springboard from which the author starts a discussion about the recent Western attention paid to the Islamic culture represented by the immigrants and even converts.

Mr. Husam Tammam is an Egyptian researcher interested in Islamic movements. Tammam is the author of many books on Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He was also the Editor of the Cultural page of Islamonline.net (Arabic Section).