BY JUAN COLE
Swissinfo surveyed the headlines in Switzerland and found
that the press there universally condemned and expressed dismay at the
(majority vote against minarets on mosques). Editors expressed
consternation at the inevitable tarnishing of Switzerland’s image and
worried about the consequences. Will there be boycotts? Sanctions? Appeals
to the European Court of Human Rights?
I can anticipate right now arguments to excuse this
outbreak of bigotry in the Alps that will be advanced by our own fringe
Right, of neoconservatives and those who think, without daring to say it,
that "white culture" is superior to all other world civilisations and
deserves to dominate or wipe the others out.
The first is that it is only natural that white, Christian
Europeans should be afraid of being swamped by people adhering to an
alien, non-European religion.
Switzerland is said to be five per cent Muslim and, of
course, this proportion is a recent phenomenon there and so unsettling to
some. But Islam is not new to Europe. Parts of what is now Spain were
Muslim for 700 years and much of the eastern stretches of what is now the
European Union was ruled by Muslims for centuries and had significant
Muslim populations. Córdoba and Sarajevo are not in Asia or Latin America.
They are in Europe. And they are cities formed in the bosom of Muslim
The European city of Córdoba in the medieval period has
been described thusly:
"For centuries Córdoba used to be the jewel of Europe,
which dazzled visitors from the north. Visitors marvelled at what seemed
to them an extraordinary general prosperity; one could travel for ten
miles by the light of street lamps and along an uninterrupted series of
buildings. The city is said to have had then 2,00,000 houses, 600 mosques
and 900 public baths. Over the quiet Guadalquivir, Arab engineers threw a
great stone bridge of seventeen arches, each fifty spans in width. One of
the earliest undertakings of Abd al-Rahman I was an aqueduct that brought
to Córdoba an abundance of fresh water for homes, gardens, fountains and
So if the Swiss think that Islam is alien to Europe then
they are thinking of a rather small Europe, not the Europe that now
actually exists. Minarets dotted Córdoba. The Arnaudija mosque in Banja
Luka dates back to the 1400s; it was destroyed along with dozens of others
by fanatics in the civil war that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia
in the 1990s.
As for the likely comeback, that Muslims came to Europe
from the 700s of the common era as conquerors, unlike Christianity,
actually, both were conquering state religions. It was the conversion of
an emperor that gave a favoured position to Christianity in Europe, which
was a small minority on the continent at the time. And Charlemagne
forcibly imposed Christianity on the German tribes up to the Elbe. In the
cases both of European Christianity and European Islam, there were many
willing converts among the ordinary folk, who thrilled to itinerant
preachers or beautiful chanting.
Others will allege that Muslims do not grant freedom of
religion to Christians in their midst. First of all, this allegation is
not true if we look at the full range of the countries where the 1.5
billion Muslims live. Among the nearly 60 Muslim-majority states in the
world, only one, Saudi Arabia, forbids the building of churches. Does
Switzerland really want to be like Saudi Arabia?
Here is a western Christian description of the situation
of Christians in Syria:
"In Syria, as in all other Arab countries of the Middle
East except Saudi Arabia, freedom of religion is guaranteed in law… We
should like to point out too that in Syria and in several other countries
of the region, Christian churches benefit from free water and electricity
supplies, are exempt from several types of tax and can seek building
permission for new churches (in Syria, land for these buildings is granted
by the state) or repair existing ones."
It should be noted too that there are Christian members of
Parliament and of government in Syria and other countries, sometimes in a
fixed number (as in Lebanon and Jordan.)
Finally, we note that a new personal statute was
promulgated on June 18, 2006 for the various Christian churches found in
Syria, which purposely and verbatim repeats most of the rules of the Code
of Canons of the Eastern Churches promulgated by Pope John Paul II.
That is, in Muslim-majority Syria, the government actually
grants land to Christians for the building of churches, along with free
water and electricity. Christians have their own personal status legal
code, straight from the Vatican. (It is because Christians have their own
law in the Middle East, backed by the state, that Muslims in the West are
puzzled as to why they cannot practise their personal status code.)
Christians have freedom of religion though there are sensitivities about
attempts to convert others (as there are everywhere in the Middle East,
including Israel). And Christians are represented in the legislature. With
Switzerland’s five per cent Muslim population, how many Muslim members of
Parliament does it have?
It will also be alleged that in Egypt some clergymen gave
fatwas or legal opinions that building churches is a sin and it will be
argued that Christians have been attacked by Muslims in Upper Egypt.
These arguments are fallacies. You cannot compare the
behaviour of some Muslim fanatics in rural Egypt to the laws and ideals of
the Swiss republic. We have to look at Egyptian law and policy.
The grand sheikh of Al-Azhar Seminary, the foremost centre
of Sunni Muslim learning, said in statements carried by Egyptian newspaper
Al-Youm Al-Saba’a that Muslims can make voluntary contributions to
build churches, pointing out that the church is a house for "worshipping
and tolerance". He condemned the fundamentalist Muslims for saying
church-building is sinful. And Egypt has lots of churches, including new
Presbyterian ones, following John Calvin, who, I believe, lived in Geneva.
About six per cent of the population is Christian.
The other problem with excusing Switzerland with reference
to Muslims’ own imperfect adherence to human rights ideals is that two
wrongs don’t make a right. The bigoted Right doesn’t even have the moral
insight of kindergarteners if that is the sort of argument they advance.
The International Declaration of Human Rights was crafted with the
participation of Pakistan, a Muslim country; the global contemporary
rights regime is imperfectly adhered to by all countries – it is a claim
on the world’s behaviour, something we must all strive for. If the Swiss
stepped back from it, they stepped back in absolute terms. It doesn’t help
us get to global human rights to say that is okay because others are also
failing to live up to the declaration.
The other Wahhabi state besides Saudi Arabia, Qatar, has
allowed churches. But they are not allowed to have steeples or bells. This
policy is a mirror image to that of the Swiss.
So Switzerland, after centuries of striving for
civilisation and enlightenment, has just about reached the same level of
tolerance as that exhibited by a small Gulf Wahhabi country, the people of
which were mostly Bedouins only a hundred years ago.
(John Ricardo I "Juan" Cole is an American scholar
and historian of the modern Middle East and South Asia and the Richard P.
Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.)
Courtesy: Muslim Media Network; muslimmedianetwork.com