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The fear of minarets

Gavin Hewitt | 10:28 UK time, Monday, 30 November 2009

minaret_595.jpgUntil the results emerged, few expected that the Swiss would actually vote to ban minarets. There had been warnings of economic damage or even a backlash. Even though the voters had been told they would be singling out the architecture of one religion they went ahead and said "no".

Debates about identity are happening across Europe. In Marseille there is a bitter battle over planning permission for a 20m-euro Grand Mosque. Some argue it will dwarf the Notre Dame de la Garde. In Italy the Northern League, an anti-immigrant party, says "yes to bell-towers, no to minarets". In France they are debating the burqa and what it means to be French. In Cologne a large mosque capable of holding 2,000 people should be finished by next year, but only after fierce argument.

So why is this happening? Firstly, Muslims have higher visibility. Secondly, as their numbers have increased so has their confidence. Thirdly, they are more assertive with their identity. There are more headscarves on the streets. It is prompting a debate, sometimes hidden, about where European societies are heading.

Much of the concern is based on fear. After all, there are only four minarets in Switzerland but there are widely-held concerns of society dividing into "parallel communities".

Perhaps the greatest fear is of the known world is disappearing. For many people this is unsettling. One of the Swiss papers said people were concerned "it was all going too fast".

Then there is the fear of extremism, of terror carried out in the name of religion. Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said the vote "reflected fears among the population of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies".

Then in Switzerland there was a feminist fear. Julia Onken, a prominent feminist, called for women to support the ban. "Mosques are male houses, minarets are male power symbols," she said. She went on to describe the minaret as a "visible signal... of the oppression of women." Some on the left believe that support for multi-culturalism should not trump upholding basic values like women's rights.

In some European cities the mosques are seen as "symbols of non-assimilation". It was pointed out in Cologne that much of the space would be used for social activities.
Children would go there after school rather than playing with others and learning to live and enjoy other traditions.

Some of these concerns are summed up in the views of the new president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. Over Turkey joining the EU, he said "the universal values which are in force in Europe and which are fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigour with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey".

There are choices here for all communities. One Swiss paper this morning said that the choice was to cling to a "traditional and nationalist" society or to embrace a "modern and international" approach.

For the Muslim communities there are other choices. They can assert their own identity and largely live within their own culture, or they can consciously integrate into the countries they join.


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