Before We Damn Switzerland
|Thursday, December 17,2009 16:18|
|By Alaa Al-Aswany|
On October 27, 2009 I was on a visit to Switzerland and from there I wrote this column about the battle over minarets. The gravity of this battle went beyond banning minarets as I believed it would lead to the reputation in which Islam was officially linked with terrorism and by this it would open the door to more legal campaigns which right-wing racist parties in the West would launch to restrict Muslims there.
In my article I advocated forming a delegation of professors and scholars from Islamic nations to travel to Switzerland to explain to the public opinion that the minaret was simply an Islamic architectural feature and not an emblem of war as alleged by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, which initiated this battle.
The Shorouk newspaper responded to my suggestion and contacted senior officials in Egypt but it appears that they were not as enthusiastic as we were about the idea. The (Mufti) leading religious official of the Republic, whose media adviser happened to be invited to a conference there, was the only official representative who responded. The truth is that the failure of Egyptian officials to do their duty has become a frequent and saddening phenomenon and habit.
In the events surrounding the football match between Egypt and Algeria in Sudan we saw how the Egyptian authorities were unable to protect Egyptian citizens from the barbaric assaults committed by Algerian criminal gangs which the Algerian government sent on military planes. We also witnessed the failure of the government to hold accountable those who affronted the dignity of Egyptians
The referendum which resulted in the banning of minaret by law in Switzerland
Angered Egyptians who wondered how Switzerland could claim to be a democratic country and at the same time prevent Muslims, from building minarets. They asked what harm there was in minarets and why the Swiss did not want to see them in their country. Could similar measures be practiced against, Jews and their synagogues in Switzerland? The anger of Egyptians is natural and understandable and their questions are reasonable, but before we condemn Switzerland we should remember several facts.
Firstly, the ban on minarets in Switzerland does not mean that the Swiss have all taken a position against Islam. Almost half the Swiss voters, as well as Swiss government officials and representatives of the Christian and Jewish communities have vigorously defended the right of Muslims to build their minarets. In fact, the referendum results led to demonstrations in many Swiss cities in defense of the right of Muslims to practice their religious freedoms. I received many letters from cultured Swiss friends expressing their deep regret at the ban on minarets, including the prominent critic Angela Schader, who wrote: “I am shocked and ashamed of my country” and described the ban as “a decision that is stupid, narrow-minded and cowardly".
Although the referendum is legal and binding under the Swiss constitution, it violates the principles of human rights and the case can be pursued in international forums with a view to overturning the ban. This is the legitimate way to deal with the problem calling for boycotts and accusing Switzerland of hostility towards Islam would indicate an unfair perception of the Swiss people and would lead to mutual hostility from which only the extremists there would benefit.
Thirdly, the Swiss People’s Party, which provoked this crisis, is one of many right-wing European parties, all of which have racist messages hostile to foreigners and immigrants. The People’s Party has exploited the Swiss people’s fear of Islam and their ignorance of its tolerant teachings and with this referendum it has taken a step which will be preceded by other steps. Party officials have stated that they are preparing new referendums against wearing the (veil) higab at work or in educational institutions, against female circumcision and against separate cemeteries for Muslims.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy was quick to support the ban on minarets and said he understood the need for Western society to preserve its cultural identity, and voices soon arose in Holland and Germany calling for similar referendums to restrain Muslims. So the battle has not ended with the ban on minarets. It has only started and we must defend the rights of Muslims by means that are legal, effective and respectful.
Fourthly, from my long experience of Western society I believe that we as Muslims are responsible to a large extent for the powerful wave of fear of Islam. This feeling did not exist, or at least was not evident, before the attacks of September 11, 2001. Criminal terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, took it upon themselves to tarnish the image of Islam in the minds of millions of Westerners. Suffice it to say that the word “jihad” is now used in Western languages to mean armed attacks on civilians and that the term “islamisme” in French has come to be used to mean terrorism, even in academic circles. Add to this the fact that most mosques in the West are financed by Wahabi oil sheikhs who offer an extreme Salafist interpretation of the religion, which has very much helped to distort its image in Western minds. It is enough to know that physical education classes for Muslim girls have become a big problem in Swiss schools because many Muslim parents there insist on preventing their young daughters from taking part in physical education and swimming classes (based on erroneous Wahabi fatwas of course), which forces the school authorities to defend the right of girls to take part and at the same time reinforces the image of Islam as a reactionary religion which sees women only as bodies which cause temptation and which are to be used for pleasure. One has to imagine the reaction of Westerners when they hear that Islam requires female circumcision (a horrendous crime which has nothing to do with Islam) or when they see a woman wearing the niqab or face veil, whether with two eye-openings or with only one, as some Saudi sheikhs advocate. Wahabi ideas, backed by oil money, provide the worst possible images of Islam to Western minds. Those who voted in favour of the ban on minarets in Switzerland are not all racists but they are simply afraid of a religion which is linked in their minds with violence, murder, backward thinking and the oppression of women. It is our duty to offer the West the correct image of Islam, which created a great civilization that for seven centuries taught the whole world the principles of justice, freedom and tolerance. If we fail in performing this duty then we will have no right to blame others.
Fifthly, banning minarets in Switzerland is clearly a flagrant violation of freedom of belief, and Egyptians, Arabs and Muslims have a right to object to the ban and try to overturn the ban by all legal means. But the Egyptian government has no moral right to object to the ban on minarets in Switzerland because it has failed to ensure freedom of belief for Egyptians themselves. The Egyptian authorities regularly arrest Shiites and Quranists, put them on trial on charges of contempt for religion and throw them into prison. In fact, the official department headed by the Mufti, which is now calling for freedom of belief in Switzerland, has issued an official fatwa declaring Baha’is to be infidels, a declaration which puts them in danger of being murdered at any moment. These Baha’is are Egyptian citizens who have fought a bitter battle for recognition of their religion in official documents. As for the Coptic Christians, they face the greatest hardship when they try to build new churches or even repair old ones. A uniform law on places of worship, which would put mosques and churches on the same legal basis, has been buried for many years in the files of the Egyptian government, which refuses even to discuss it. Freedom of belief means guaranteeing respect and freedom of worship for everyone, whatever their beliefs and their religion. This is just the opposite of what the Egyptian government executes, so it cannot demand freedom of belief in Switzerland while obstructing it in Egypt. The Egyptian regime, which holds power by repression and fraud, cannot guarantee freedom of belief for its citizens because he who has lost something cannot then give it away and because freedom of belief will not come about in isolation from other public freedoms and political rights.
Therefore I have come to the assumption that democracy is the solution.