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INTERMITTENT NOTESXML

Cultural Leanings

Anti-minaret poster from SwitzerlandThe Swiss people have defied their government by voting against having any more minarets in Switzerland. Unexpected by mainstream opinion, this vote is sure to be portrayed in a most unfavorable light, as an unhelpful example of narrow-minded parochialism if not downright racism. But that would be a mistake. All cultures are not relatively equal, nor should we pretend that they are. The Swiss are perfectly justified in wanting to keep what they've got, just as are the French in banning headscarves from classrooms, and as are various international efforts to ban the burqa.

Instead of meekly accepting cultural practices we don't like we should remind ourselves that they can, and do, evolve. Once upon a time, for example, the Hindus in India practiced Sati, the (often forced) immolation of a widow upon her husband's funeral pyre. The British put a stop to it.

General Napier is famously quoted thusly:

"You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."

Most Hindus now consider Sati completely barbaric and in today's India it is against the law. Similarly, the common Muslim practices of segregating women, effectively discriminating against them, are not at all immutable. Nor are sanctioned deaths by stoning in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or beheading, or other such primitive, atavistic behavior, wherever it may take place.

Sometimes a minaret is just a minaret. Sometimes it's not. The Swiss have judged it a powerful symbol of an alien, inferior culture that threatens Swiss norms. But that is not the same as the Swiss rejecting Islam. We should understand the difference.

« Essay at Huffington Post | Main | From Dubai to Athens »



Comments


George, George. Usually I have no trouble agreeing with you, but this time... A minaret is a place from which the faithful are called to prayer, five times a day. I can understand that the Swiss would find this annoying, having given up the habit of prayer many years ago. But...to condemn these structures as symbols of an "inferior culture" just because you find the habits of its extremist fundamentalists repugnant is unworthy of you. Would you judge all American culture purely on the basis of the rebarbative habits of some of your fundamentalists?

BTW an ancestor of my mother was the governor of India who made the actual decision to stop sati, and it was based on a remarkably balanced analysis. I can send you a link to it if you like.

[Well, OK, David, I respect your opinion and I may well be in error. But let's take this one step at a time. Would you agree or not, for example, with the French ban on headscarves in schools? Or for that matter with the recent case of British Air banning the wearing of a crucifix necklace by a flight attendant? g.]


A sticky question. You surprise me — not what I'd expected, though I agree completely. However, would you support a community in the US forbidding the construction of a mosque?

I do not agree with the French ban on headscarves, or the British Airways prohibition of crucifixes. What harm does either cause? Westerners could use a strong dose of modesty. Other groups should exercise the same tolerance they demand from Christians.

George, is the goal an irreligious, secularized, "world community"? That would not be acceptable, desirable, manageable (for long), or attainable — without barbaric persecution of religion. The impulse to believe in Someone greater is immutable to human character.

[Well, not all the big questions have black and white answers. But to take the question of mosques — something that is an issue both in Europe and the U.S. — if the Saudis, for example, are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build giant mosque complexes with schools, etc., all over the world, should that be challenged? Anywhere? Do the Saudis reciprocate by allowing Christian denominations to build churches in the Kingdom? No. What version of Islam are these mosques promoting? A profoundly conservative — indeed, reactionary — Wahhabi one. So, there are legitimate questions about what should be allowed. Even near Washington DC, in Northern Virginia, the Saudis fund a mosque (attended by the Ft. Hood shooter) that has generated a fair amount of controversy. And bear in mind that it's probably easier, all things considered, for America, with its diverse culture, to accommodate fundamentalist mosques than it is in Europe.

These are very much questions of nuance, but if the Swiss want to ban future construction of minarets, they have their own good reasons, and I respect that.

Just to be absolutely clear: I'm in no way arguing either for a secular community or the persecution of religious faith. g.]


George,

This text made me quite angry and disappointed me.

Most mosques in France don’t preach extremism. For agnostics, the great mosque of Paris is a great place to go, meet people, enjoy the hammam and drink mint tea. Of course it is mainly a place of worship, but I have the same feeling when visiting Notre-Dame. (except no hammam in N.D.). Minarets are as visually pleasing as cathedral spires.

What will the Swiss do next? White crescents on muslim’s clothes? This stinks and, after the GFC, makes me think of 1929-1933 all over again.

The headscarf ban, well, as a former weird-dress-and-hairdo person, I resent all school rules pertaining to clothes. If all religious signs are treated equally, maybe, but I think the points gained in the secular department are lost in the discrimination area.

The hypothetic burqa ban? As disgusting as the swiss minaret ban, as I do believe people can dress as they bloody well like in the streets.

As for feeling that there are 'inferior cultures', well let me see your scale. Cultures are different, yes, they have bad and good points, yes, and being able to weigh everything and declare a winner is pretty arrogant.

You give me the sati ban, I give you the Great Famine of 1876–78. I believe and hope there’s no way to count points.

[Thanks, Sophie, for your kind comment. I'm trying to fix up a guest to talk about these questions on the EP podcast. g.]


George — Perhaps you could interview a philosopher who studies Nietzsche in order to explore this question?

Nietzsche was an advocate of pluralism but stated unequivocally, I think, that not all values and moralities are constructed as equals.

[Thanks, Charles, for your suggestion. But to be honest, I'm no fan of Nietzsche. I will, however, continue to pursue the religious angle. g.]


I would like to draw everyone's attention to the Charter for Compassion campaign by Karen Armstrong and TED.

The first point they are making with this great effort is that morality is not a matter of taste, as we have so often heard, but can be reduced to an absolute — the Golden Rule.

The second is that all great religions in the history of the world have preached and are preaching this, including Islam. Of course, there is not a single great religion that has not at times been corrupted horribly by its putative followers. It is irresponsible and illogical to pick out any particular one for chastisement based on this.


Well, my perspective on this is a bit different. And probably useless. But I'll try to explain myself.

I might well have a problem with certain proposals for spires or minarets based on their architectural appropriateness. It is not at all easy governing the built environment. I just finished four years on planning and zoning in a town of three thousand. It is a powerful tool and thus can evoke powerful response. It might even get tangled in freedom of religion in some ways. But to control the way a place looks and feels as well as "what it says" is probably applicable in some cases.

I've not been to Switzerland. If the construction of something would amount to a sufficiently uncharacteristic blot on a neighborhood or, for that matter, a skyline, then a community should have the grounds to reject it.


As to religion, I wholeheartedly approve of none of them. Nature will, in the end, have it's way with us.

[Thanks, Peter. Clearly a lot of issues in play here. g.]


George,

Ummmm. Did Sarah Palin slip something into your pecan pie? :-)

The Swiss being so far away and so "apart" may make this sort of vote seem somehow an aesthetic choice, but it's no different from synagogues being banned in the early days of the Reich. And the timing of this??

Welles had their number:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dv1QDlWbS8g

[That's a great movie. But seriously, I think that the rules regarding social norms should be applied equitably. No snake handling, for example, in West Virginia churches — where it's currently legal. g.]


The Swiss have judged it a powerful symbol of an alien, inferior culture that threatens Swiss norms.

The "inferior" part of this sentence was unnecessary and uncalled for. None of us want to be overwhelmed by an alien culture and if the Swiss want to push back against minarets or Starbuck's or American beef, that's their prerogative. There's no need to be offensive.


"The "inferior" part of this sentence was unnecessary and uncalled for. None of us want to be overwhelmed by an alien culture and if the Swiss want to push back against minarets or Starbuck's or American beef, that's their prerogative. There's no need to be offensive."

An intelligent comment to a remarkably stupid and bigoted post.


Being Swiss, I was surprised to read this post George and also some of the comments. It is a nice surprise that a Swiss issue makes it to your blog. Still, I am disappointed by the result of that Swiss vote. Freedom of religion to me is more important than planning and zoning issues.

What the Swiss wanted to state by banning minarets, I believe however, is the following: we do not want to tolerate the common Muslim practices of segregating women, forced marriages, female genital mutilation and other forms of discrimination of women. And we would like the Saudis and other Muslim countries to allow us (Christians) to build churches in their countries too.

In my opinion, the Swiss gave the wrong answer to the wrong question.

Building minarets is a planning and zoning issue.

People living in Switzerland should follow Swiss customs and treat women equal to men.

I am undecided, if banning headscarves from classrooms is the right thing. But if wearing headscarves at school means they cannot participate in sports nor go swimming with the other kids, it gets difficult. It just might be that banning headscarves from classrooms is the best thing to do.

You are right George, that the Swiss are not rejecting Islam. But the Swiss are rejecting Islam practices that are not legal nor the norm in Switzerland.

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