When I was five years old, my parents enrolled me in Sainte Marguerite-Marie, a French grade school in a suburb of Rabat, in Morocco. The school was run by a group of Franciscan nuns who had arrived in the country during the colonial period but had stayed behind after independence. My favorite teacher was Soeur Laurette, who nurtured my love of books, and my regular tormentor was Soeur Isabelle, who, whenever I made a mistake, pulled my ponytail so hard my neck would hurt for hours.
My father, like his father before him, had memorized the Koran by the time he started his own grade school education; but he did not see any danger or contradiction in having his child attend a French school. My mother, who did not cover her hair, did not seem to have any anxiety about my spending half my day with women dressed in austere tunics and long black veils. I suppose that my parents’ guiding principle was that they had to choose the best neighborhood school. The fact that it happened to be run by Catholics did not scare them–they understood that being in daily contact with another religion is not dangerous. It does not mean you will be converted. It does not mean that you will have to change. Religion is not passed through the air you breathe or the sidewalk you tread or the classroom you share.
Last Sunday’s referendum in Switzerland, in which voters approved a ban on the construction of minarets in their country, has been greeted in Europe with pious cries of horror from mainstream politicians. The Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, says she is “very concerned,” while her French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, says he is “a bit shocked.” Editorials in many European newspapers have condemned the ban, if not the irrational fear behind it. In an effort to calm things down, some have pointed out that the four existing minarets in Switzerland would not be affected and that minarets are not necessary for the construction of mosques.
But it would be a mistake to ignore this ban. It is a significant new step in a trend that has been working its way through Europe for some time. It began in France in 1989, with a controversy over the wearing of headscarves in public schools. The debate continued there over the next fifteen years and was periodically reignited by worldwide events, culminating in a ban on the wearing of headscarves and other “ostentatious” religious symbols in 2004. Belgium has started along the same route, giving school headmasters discretionary power to decide whether Muslim schoolgirls who cover their hair can attend school. Not long ago, Denmark passed a law that makes it nearly impossible for anyone under the age of 24 to bring a spouse into the country from abroad, a move that is aimed at curbing the arrival of foreign spouses of Muslim immigrants. And Switzerland is not the first to ban minarets. The Austrian state of Carinthia earned this dubious honor in 2008.