The vote to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland has elicited negative reactions from many non-Muslim quarters. The European press, religious leaders, as well as some politicians have spoken out against it. But it has also given an unexpected boost to the far right in Europe. In Norway, we woke up Monday to a far right politician pondering a ban on the burqa and on the call to prayer (the latter is allowed as long as it is under 64dB). But the scene is gloomy because this goes beyond individual politicians or parties. The Swiss vote has left many wondering whether similar referenda in other European countries would yield similar results.
What is happening in many countries of Europe today when it comes to Islam is a curious and complex phenomenon and relegating it to bigotry does not explain anything. Tariq Ramadan has written one of the most reasonable articles I have come across that tries to make some sense of it. He is right to point out that the minaret is a symbol. The Union Démocratique du Centre, who proposed the ban in Switzerland, first considered targeting halal slaughter of animals but did not want to offend Swiss Jews. Minarets, I might add, work better here precisely because they are visible symbols. But symbols of what? This is the crux of Ramadan’s argument:
[…] while European countries and citizens are going through a real and deep identity crisis, the new visibility of Muslims is problematic – and it is scary. At the very moment Europeans find themselves asking, in a globalising, migratory world, “What are our roots?”, “Who are we?”, “What will our future look like?”, they see around them new citizens, new skin colours, new symbols to which they are unaccustomed.
The part of his article that calls for more Muslim participation as a solution is open to debate (wouldn’t more visibility cause more fear?), but still, he brings attention back to the main issue: this is about Europe as much as it is about Islam in Europe. But Ramadan’s article raises more questions than it answers. Identity crisis, fine. But why Muslims? (This issue predates 9/11, so the answer is not “terrorism”) Why not racism, which offers more visible scapegoats?
In addition, Ramadan points a finger at the “flame-fanning” populists, but what about the liberal politicians? What about, for example, the headscarf debate in France and Jack Straw’s comments on the burqa? Don’t they lend more legitimacy to anti-Islam sentiments than raving right-wingers? And how does this relate to Europe’s current wars in majority Muslim countries? And why should Islam in Europe be perceived as an extension of an external, homogeneous Islam rather than as a European phenomenon? Why is it that in Norway, for example, where things are relatively great, it is perfectly normal to find every once in a while reminders in the main stream press that Muslims are Norwegians too — and one need only make such reminders about Muslims and Jews these days? And as far as identity is concerned, why does Europe have to end where Islam begins? Why is it that despite (because of?) a suppressed shared history, Europe and Islam are assumed by many to be inherently incompatible?
These questions are not exhaustive, some are probably irrelevant, and those that are relevant do not have easy answers. But this debate is at its infancy and if Islam in Europe is to have a normal future, one should at least start by asking the correct questions and reframing the debate on premises not dictated by the right. Premises that bring economy, politics, and history — even anti-Semitic history — back into the picture. It is easy to forget that we are talking about a Muslim minority that in most European countries does not pass the 6% mark. A minority that often finds itself, for internal and external reasons, in a weaker socioeconomic position than average. Yet, precisely because the premises of the debate are being set by the far right, a growing number of citizens choose to succumb to public passions that have little to do with facts.