Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Minarets Don’t Frighten People. People Frighten People

A representative of the “rightist” Swiss political party that sponsored a ban on building new minarets in Switzerland recently said that the ban was motivated by a fear that Islamic fundamentalists had “the political will to take power.” He need not have worried, by passing this legislation, he handed that power over to them.

Switzerland has long had a reputation for tolerance, and for refuge for the persecuted of other nations. Radical Islam now evidently dictates Swiss public policy. And it is a policy of fear. Curbing the religious expression of just one faith does not say, “We abhor the violent extremism of a minority of the faith.” Rather it says, “We will let our fear drive us to curbing freedom of religious expression.”

The Swiss want to curb extremism in their midst but they have gone about it in exactly the wrong way. A recent study of violent extremism in the United States found that "Apocalyptic aggression is fueled by right-wing pundits who demonize scapegoated groups and individuals in our society, implying that it is urgent to stop them from wrecking the nation."

It is not by suppressing religious expression, buy by engaging it that extremism and radicalism is suppressed. Diversity is normative. The more varied we are, the less likely it is that any one extreme group or view point can dominate the public stage. The more communal our experience, the less extreme we tend to be. Religion and religious expression has a prominent place in that dialog.

Nor is the politics of fear a new story. In 2006, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said, “The idea of a society where no visible public signs of religion would be seen- no crosses around necks, no sidelocks, turbans or veils - is a politically dangerous one.” A country’s government should not work as a “licensing authority” nor should it presume to dictate “public morality.” He argued that a government should not be the sole arbiter of a society’s identity.

That fact of the matter is that minarets don’t frighten people. People frighten people. If minarets are dangerous because they are used by fundamentalist Islam to perpetrate violence, then the Swiss had better take the crosses down from the church towers, lest we are reminded of the Klu Klux Klan. But that's extremist talk. The vast majority of Swiss Muslims are not fundamentalists: they don’t “adhere to the codes of dress and conduct” of fundamentalist Islam and they are mixed into the Swiss population as seamlessly as any other group. At least until now.

No comments: