On Minarets and Ian Buruma

In a recent article in the Guardian, Mountains and Minarets, Ian Buruma takes up the Swiss constitutional ban on minarets. He maintains that the ban had nothing to do with alleged worries about fundamentalism and the “creeping Islamisation” of Switzerland. To what, then, can we attribute the vote? Buruma provides an interesting, although troubling, answer: to Europe’s loss of religious faith:

“It is unimportant that many European Muslims are just as disenchanted and secular as their non-Muslim fellow-citizens. It is the perception that counts. Those soaring minarets, those black headscarves, are threatening because they rub salt in the wounds of those who feel the loss of their own faith”.

The Orientalist undertones of this reasoning are obvious. It tacitly implies that the ban is the fault of Muslims themselves; that they have brought it upon themselves by failing to modernise or even get rid of their faith, which strikes fear in the hearts of their not so self-assured fellow non-Muslim citizens.

Moreover, their minarets look like missiles, and that could be construed as an expression of Islam’s supremacy, as, indeed, the other Dutch writer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali maintains. As far apart as the positions of Buruma and Hirsi Ali may seem, they share a common explanatory frame of reference. They both point the finger of accusation at the Other: Muslims. Neither is critical of the exclusivist political discourses and practices within European political scene; these are simply rendered invisible. But public intellectuals should know better. They have an obligation to highlight the shortcomings of all ways of life.

I do not wish to excuse or wax apologetic on behalf of Muslims. They have certainly done very little to integrate Islam and themselves into mainstream European realities. Some live in Europe as if they never migrated.

Nevertheless, we must reverse the explanation offered by Buruma and Hirsi Ali. The ban does not reflect only an incompatibility of Islamic faith with Swiss or European values. It signifies something more profound and more disturbing: the problem of deviation from the enlightenment tradition. It is not loss of faith that makes people and governments act counter to secularism. This would imply that people who have lost their faith are normally intolerant towards faith as such, and, even more dubiously, that only religious faith can provide people with ontological certainty.

The problem is with political Islam, not with Islamic faith. More precisely, it is the conflation of Islam as faith and Islam perceived as a totalitarian political system. This perception, embedded in the ban itself, is what Buruma fails to scrutinize.

Despite its inflammatory rhetoric, Hirsi Ali’s explanation for the ban is far more benign than Buruma’s. While she is blunt to the point of being vulgar, Buruma is subtle and more complex. But it is, ultimately, he who offers the worst ideological explanation. It is no longer political expression of Islam which is the problem but Islamic faith as such which mysteriously presents a menace to Europe’s loss of faith.

One understands Buruma’s hesitation to directly identify the ban with the rise of political Islam. Had he claimed that Swiss Muslims were working to islamise Switzerland, or that Swiss identity was under threat from political Islam, he would have needed evidence which is not forthcoming: there are few minarets in Switzerland and most Muslims are nominal Muslims.

Yet Buruma’s preferred explanation fares no better. Swiss public opinion seems to have perceived a direct link between minarets and political Islam. If we attribute the ban to the Islamic faith somehow representing an ontological menace to the European “faithless” people, we are forced to conclude that Europe and Muslims are caught in a Huntingtonian vicious cycle of clashing civilisations. But in truth the rift between Islam and Europe is not that deep and there are points of contact to be explored.

A prerequisite for a successful integration of Muslims in Europe is that their religious beliefs are respected. But there is no respect for Muslims’ religious beliefs unless there is space for their religious practices. As all other religious beliefs, Muslim beliefs are embedded in rituals and rituals are enacted in places of ritual (churches, mosques, synagogues, etc).

Buruma’s attempt to attribute the ban to uncertainties following the loss of faith attempts to evade the real problem by masking it and thus refusing to take a critical look at one’s own position. That position is morbidly fascinated with the Other’s beliefs, and in that fascination forgets to examine its own thick ideological presuppositions. For why should there be a stronger connection between minarets and Islamic faith and not between Church towers and Christian beliefs?

It will not do to invoke trivialities as explanations for the ban, as Buruma does. One must go to the end and dot the “i”s: the Swiss vote was an expression of a lack of tolerance of the Muslim other. It was an impressive display of faith. The majority of Swiss people amply demonstrated that somewhere things have gone terribly wrong.

If the minaret-ban shows anything at all, it shows that part of Europe is losing, if it has not already lost, not its religious faith but the faith in the universal enlightenment project and its ideals of liberty, equality, tolerance and openness towards the Other. Contrasting ontological uncertainties with unreflective orthodoxies misses this point and does justice neither to Europeans or Muslims.

About albphilosopher

Sead Zimeri has studied Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy and Religion, International Politics and Psychoanalysis. He is currently the project coordinator of "Islam and the Liberal Society" at the Liberalt Laboratorium (LibLab) thin tank in Oslo, Norway. http://www.liblab.no
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