Friday, December 04, 2009

Swiss Minaret Ban: Two 'Muslim' Views

In my belated attention to the Swiss ban on minarets, I've come across the somewhat differing views of two 'Muslim' women.

The first of these two is the well-known Mona Eltahawy, a professional journalist originally from Egypt but living since 2000 in the United States:

Mona Eltahawy
(Image from Mona Eltahawy)

Ms. Eltahawy opposes the ban but offers some interesting remarks in her Washington Post article, "Europe's call to intolerance" (December 1, 2009):
My question for Switzerland and other European countries enthralled by the right wing: When did Saudi Arabia become your role model?
Implicit in this opening shot is the recognition of inconsistency within the Muslim world, and after several paragraphs lambasting the Europeans enamored of this ban, Ms. Eltahawy turns her attention toward Muslims:
Meanwhile, condemnations from the Muslim world -- where some have semi-jokingly called for a boycott of Swiss chocolate -- underscore the other sort of hypocrisy that must be confronted if Muslim complaints of bigotry are to be taken seriously.

The Grand Mufti of Egypt, for example, denounced the ban as an "attack on freedom of belief." I would take him more seriously if he denounced in similar terms the difficulty Egyptian Christians face in building churches in his country. They must obtain a security permit just for renovations.

Last year, the first Catholic church -- bearing no cross, no bells and no steeple -- opened in Qatar, leaving Saudi Arabia the only country in the Persian Gulf that bars the building of houses of worship for non-Muslims. In Saudi Arabia, it is difficult even for Muslims who don't adhere to the ultra-orthodox Wahhabi sect; Shiites, for example, routinely face discrimination.

Bigotry must be condemned wherever it occurs. If majority-Muslim countries want to criticize the mistreatment of Muslims living as minority communities elsewhere, they should be prepared to withstand the same level of scrutiny regarding their own mistreatment of minorities. Millions of non-Muslim migrant workers have helped build Saudi Arabia. Human rights groups have long condemned the slave-like conditions that many toil under, and the possibility of Saudi citizenship is nonexistent. Muslim nations have been unwilling to criticize this bigotry in their midst, and Europeans should keep in mind that Sunday's ban takes them in this direction.
Ms. Eltahawy's point is well taken. Muslims can hardly with consistency criticize the Swiss when Muslim-dominated countries that restrict other religions escape similar criticism.

But not every 'Muslim' criticizes the Swiss ban on Minarates. Unlike the liberal 'Muslim' Ms. Eltahawy, who belongs to the Progressive Muslim Union of North America, there is the utterly secular Mina Ahadi, founder of the German Central Council of Ex-Muslims, who offers full-throated support for the ban:

Mina Ahadi
(Image from Wikipedia)

Ms. Ahadi, originally an Iranian Azeri, is not only secular but also currently a member of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran. She was briefly interviewed in the Leipziger Volkszeitung (November 29, 2009), which I will quote in full, both in German and in my 'loose' translation:
["Signal gegen Scharia"]

"Signal Against Sharia"

[Mina Ahadi, Zentralratschefin der Ex-Muslime, im Interview zum Bauverbot für Minarette in der Schweiz]

Interview with Mina Ahadi, Chair of the Central Council of Ex-Muslims, concerning the Swiss ban on the construction of minarets

[Frage: Was sagen Sie zum Bauverbot für Minarette in der Schweiz?]

Question: What is your opinon concerning the ban of minarets in Switzerland?

[Mina Ahadi: Ich begrüße die Entscheidung. Es geht ja dabei eigentlich um Minarette. Das Nein zu Minaretten ist eigentlich ein Signal gegen Islamismus, Scharia und Kopftuchzwang. Das Minarett steht da nur als Symbol für eine begründete Furcht vor dem politischen Islam. Es ist deshalb gut, dass die Schweizer Bürger in diese Entwicklung eingegriffen haben und deutlich Nein gesagt haben. Ich wünsche mir, dass es auch in Deutschland eine breitere Debatte über die Beschneidung von Frauen- oder Kinderrechten gibt.]

Mina Ahadi: I welcome the decision. It really is about minarets. The rejection of minarets is truly a signal against Islamism, sharia, and enforced wearing of the hijab. The minaret stands merely as a symbol for the reasonable fear of political Islam. For that reason, it is good that the Swiss citizens have intervened in this development and have clearly said "No!" I wish that there were a wide-ranging debate in Germany over female genital mutilation and children's rights. [Erratum: My wife has pointed out, and commenter 'Erdal' has confirmed, that this last sentence should be translated as: "I wish that there were a wide-ranging debate in Germany over the curtailment of women's and children's rights."]

[F: Kritiker der Entscheidung fürchten eine Stärkung des Fremdenhasses. Wie groß ist die Gefahr?]

Q: Critics of the decision fear a strengthening of xenophobia. How great is the danger?

[Ahadi: Das wäre eine einseitige und falsche Deutung. In der Schweiz geht es nicht um Abgrenzung zu Muslimen, sondern um einen Protest gegen den Verstoß von Menschenrechten im Namen des Islam. Auch viele Muslime fühlen sich nicht mehr von den islamischen politischen Organisationen vertreten. Viele wehren sich gegen die verordnete Unterdrückung. Vielleicht gibt ihnen diese Entscheidung auch Mut, sich mehr von diesem Druck zu befreien.]

Ahadi: That would be a one-sided and false interpretation. In Switzerland, this vote is not a matter of marginalizing Muslims. Rather, it is a protest against Islam's attack on human rights. Even many Muslims feel that they are no longer represented by the Islamic political organizations. Many are resisting the officially sanctioned suppression [by these Islamic organizations]. Perhaps this decision will encourage them to free themselves even more from the pressure.

[F: Nun fürchten viele die Reaktion der islamischen Welt. Was kommt da auf die Schweiz zu?]

Q: Many now fear the reaction of the Islamic world. What is going to happen to Switzerland?

[Ahadi: Natürlich wird es aggressive Reaktionen der muslimischen Verbände und der arabischen Welt auf die Schweizer Volksabstimmung geben. Die ersten Drohungen sind schon da. Es entspricht deren Kultur des ständigen Beleidigtseins, jetzt wieder die Opferrolle zu beschwören und den unterdrückten Islam in der westlichen Welt anzuprangern. Das zeigt aber nur, dass es hier um Politik und nicht nur um Religion geht. Wir hoffen sehr, dass Säkularismus und westliche Menschenrechte auch weiter verteidigt werden.]

Ahadi: Naturally, there will be an aggressive reaction on the part of Muslim organizations and the Arab world against the Swiss referendum. The first threats have already been made. One should expect from the culture of the perpetually offended that it would play the role of victim and protest the suppression of Islam in the West. That merely demonstrates that this is really about politics and not only about religion. We really hope that secularism and Western human rights will be further defended.
Ms. Ahadi's views are likely influenced by her experiences in Iran and the fact that she lives in Germany under police protection from death-threats against her as chair of the Central Council of Ex-Muslims. Note that she thinks the minaret a political symbol:
The minaret stands merely as a symbol for the reasonable fear of political Islam.
Ms. Eltahawy would disagree:
[T]o suggest, as nationalist parties in Switzerland did, that minarets are symbols of political Islam is ridiculous. Minarets are used to issue the call to prayer, not to recruit people to Islamic political groups.
Who's right? Ms. Ahadi or Ms. Eltahawy? Perhaps we should turn to another outspoken critic of the Swiss ban, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has called the referendum's result "racist and fascist," but who also -- according to an earlier BBC News article, "Turkey's charismatic pro-Islamic leader" (November 4, 2002) -- once quoted the following lines from a poem:
"The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers."
I don't know how broadly one ought to construe such lines, but even on a purely symbolic level, Prime Minister Erdoğan would seem to agree with Ms. Ahadi against Ms. Eltahawy that the minaret is a political, even a military symbol!

But I still don't see the point of banning minarets outright, for if the minaret is to be banned for being political, then the mosque itself should be banned as a political symbol, for Islam is an intrinsically, inescapably, and explicitly political religion.

Rather than focus on minarets, I'd prefer that attention be given to the more serious issue of Islamism in Europe, but the Swiss ban might at least usefully focus attention on the inconsistencies of many Muslim critics in the ongoing debate.

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At 6:20 AM, Blogger kushibo said...

I think you got the year on Ms. Eltahawy's article wrong. It's 2009, not 2001.

Interesting topic. A far cry from South Korea's working model of "inclusiveness" for religious tolerance (imperfect, yes). No one bats an eye about the very prominent Muslim temple in Itaewon.

At 7:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Kushibo, I'll correct that.

Muslim 'temple'? Don't let a Muslim hear you say that . . . unless you're speaking to a NOI Muslim, I suppose.

But there is some resistance among Koreans to Islamic symbols, possibly even some eye-batting about that mosque.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:30 AM, Blogger kushibo said...

오마이 에핀 갓! Did I write "Muslim temple"?!

I must be majorly sleep-deprived right now. I was in fact thinking of 사원 in Korean, which has the same hantcha as temple (寺). But I don't know why I was thinking along those lines since I usually think of the place in English, as the Seoul Mosque. I just had lunch there a few months ago even!

Oh, that is a horrible, horrible, horrible mistake to make. Yes, I meant mosque. And if it were possible, I'd want a mulligan.


At 7:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Obviously, you've betrayed your underlying 'proham' affinities. But go ahead, ham it up!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:48 PM, Blogger kushibo said...

And you're right that there is, belatedly, some resistance among some Koreans to Islamic symbols, but I think they are still the minority, perhaps even the vocal fringe.

For the last few days I've been thinking of writing up something about this issue (but North Korea's Great Currency Obliteration of 2009 has put everything on the back burner). If I do, I'll link back to this post for sure.

At 6:01 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kushibo, link away!

Seriously, I do recall a Muslim-funded school being approved but then 'disapproved' by civic groups.

Seeing where this goes in the future will be interesting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:14 AM, Anonymous erdal said...

Torrents of words in the press about this or that lofty principle, value or moral. Shadow-boxing.

People also have interests. These may be vague or entirely unformulated, mutually incompatible, incoherent even, but they are real. In the end, people will make them count, given the opportunity.

The two contributions from Eltahawi and Ahadi (who I met I couple of times, years ago. She's only an accidental communist, her real work is in womens' liberation) still only scrape on the surface of things, in the language of newspaper liberal arts supplements. They are still a veil above the real issue, this being that muslim mass immigration into european countries is deeply and broadly unpopular for a number of reasons, some more defensible on grounds of principle or moral than others, but all real.

Politics and public intellectuals ignore this at their peril. As I've said before, this feels very much like 1989: a groundswell of discontent is slowly rising against a facade of manufactured, fake consensus that muslim immigrations is inevitable, or an exclusively positive contribution, or a moral question.

I happen to sympathize with the fears and interests of the indigenous majorities. A also happen to agree that there is a real danger of unrest, pogroms even, in the none-too-distant future; not something I relish, being a potential accidental pogromee.

This is why the swiss vote is valuable: it sends a clear message (which is understood, but usually not acknowledged, as we see) without involving hanging people from lamp-posts.

At 7:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Erdal, your perspective as a very informed, secular 'Muslim' is always insightful.

If this is 1989, let's hope that the changes turn out more like Czechoslovakia's velvet revolution than Yugoslavia's horrifying civil war.

This concern of mine, incidentally, is why I am less than enamored of nationalist responses to Muslim immigration. I would prefer a European response based on Enlightenment values and European civilization.

But I don't get to make these choices.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

By the way, Erdal, my wife says that I've translated this wrong:

"Ich wünsche mir, dass es auch in Deutschland eine breitere Debatte über die Beschneidung von Frauen- oder Kinderrechten gibt."

I have:

"I wish that there were a wide-ranging debate in Germany over female genital mutilation and children's rights."

My wife insists:

"I wish that there were a wide-ranging debate in Germany over the curtailment of women's and children's rights."

I argued that the hyphen attached to "Frauen-" is a mistake of the interviewer and that my translation is therefore correct, but as much as I hate to admit it, my wife might be right.

What do you think?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:08 AM, Anonymous erdal said...

Your wife's right, no doubt. Without the hyphen the sentence would be ungrammatic (missing comma or "and". "Kinderrechten" is 2nd case, anyway).

At 8:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Erdal. I'll update.

Jeffery Hodges

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