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.
The ban on minarets is at once profoundly silly and sure to be completely ineffective. It will not stop Swiss Muslims from practicing their religion–it may, in fact, make some of them want to flaunt it. It will not make the nearly half million Muslims in Switzerland disappear into thin air–even if their compatriots seem to wish that they would. It will, however, make it harder for Muslims and non-Muslims to get along, especially now that this new law reinforces the perception that not everyone is equal under the law.
Already there are signs that the minaret vote will embolden right-wing groups in Switzerland and across Europe. Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, has already announced that he will try to organize a similar referendum in the Netherlands. Pia Kjaersgaard, the head of the Danish People’s Party, wants a ban in Denmark, even though there are no minarets in her country. As for Marine Le Pen, the vice chair of the French Front National, she thinks the Swiss ban doesn’t go far enough and now wants a referendum on communautarisme in France–by which she means legal decisions on everything from the availability of halal food in school cafeterias to taking a day off for a religious holiday.
Muslim right-wing groups in Europe will also find this ban convenient, because their recruitment pitch becomes that much simpler. “They forbid you to practice your religion,” they may say. In the larger Muslim world, right-wing leaders will seize this opportunity as well. Egypt’s leading cleric Ali Gomaa has already whipped up the i-word: “This proposal…is not considered just an attack on freedom of beliefs, but also an attempt to insult the feelings of the Muslim community in and outside Switzerland.” You don’t need a crystal ball to see where this is headed.
The ban on minarets, if considered on its own, may not seem important. But it is hitched to a bigger story, one that has been unfolding over the last twenty years–one of mass immigration, economic depression and the rebirth of fascism in Europe. It would be a mistake to think that the world we live in can go back to being simpler. Most countries will no longer have the luxury (if they ever did) of including only one ethnic group, one religion or one language. Learning how to balance the rights of the individual and the rights of the community is unavoidable.