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Published:February 12th, 2010 14:28 EST
The Swiss Minaret Ban and the French Burqa Ban

The Swiss Minaret Ban and the French Burqa Ban

By Geoff Dean

In recent weeks, Marc and I have been engaged in a debate over the minaret ban that was passed in Switzerland. As time has gone by and rhetoric has cooled (mostly mine), I have come to realize that for the most part Marc and I are in agreement. While I strongly oppose the ban, he has raised some legitimate challenges to my approach. Therefore, in violation of my promise to "move on", I want to bring the debate into focus once again.


 The issue is the ban of new minaret construction in Switzerland passed in a plebiscite-style "direct democracy" vote. This was sponsored (albeit not authored) by the SVP, the far-right party in Switzerland that I have labeled in previous articles as "fascist". I predicted that this ban may lead to a wave of intolerance against Muslims and foreigners/immigrants in Switzerland in general.

 Marc, on the other hand, suggests that the ban will probably be overturned and that in fact, it is not as widely supported as suggested by the plebiscite since many people refused to turn out and vote on such a ridiculous issue. I hope he is right and he may well be; I merely am calling for vigilance. If the ban is repealed or overturned in court, then great. If the voters amend the plan directly, all the better. I simply fear that the longer this remains on the books, the greater the risk that this will come to be seen as acceptable and lead to worse.

 Marc also points out that some religious practices are banned when they collide with the laws of a nation. Surely, human sacrifice, polygamy, various forms of funeral pyres, etc. are banned in countries where these are considered to be illegal acts. He makes the case that under strict zoning laws, minarets can be banned as well.

 I don`t necessarily disagree. But I wonder why a nationwide blanket ban has to be enacted to protect local zoning laws. In Tokyo, there is a mosque with minarets but it has to adhere to strict earthquake construction rules and is not allowed to use a loudspeaker, due to noise ordinances. I hear no complaints from Muslims in Japan. If Japan announced that minarets were to be banned outright, however I`m sure that would change.

 It is hard for me to see how the purpose of banning minarets is anything other than expressing displeasure at the presence of an active Muslim minority in Switzerland, an "unwelcome" mat, if you will.

 That brings me to the French. Having banned head scarves (they added crucifixes and yarmulkes as an afterthought) in schools in 2004, there is no a move to ban wearing the burqa, the all-covering garment for females, at least, in public.

 Let me say that, for the record, I am not a fan of the burqa. It can and often is a form of discrimination against women. I find it jarring when I encounter it, tolerant though I try to be. It also presents safety issues, as someone can easily hide their identity for criminal and even terrorist purposes.

 That said, it is also a religious symbol for some Muslims. Should it be banned?

 The case in question is a Moroccan man, a member of the Taghlib missionary movement, a fundamentalist Islamic, "back to the Quran" movement that, fairly or unfairly, has been linked by some sources to Al Qaeda and/or terrorism (The CIA does not concur, calling it a religious and non-political movement). The man has applied for citizenship on the grounds that his wife is French. Normally speaking, it would be an easy decision.

 However, according to an AP report, the man "forces" his wife to wear a burqa (How the wife feels about this is not disclosed.) If she wants to wear the burqa, can he still be said to be forcing her? Is this not primarily a family matter? Does it have any bearing on French citizenship? Can religious views and practices be a disqualification?

 Some French Muslims have supported the decision to deny citizenship, including Chems-Eddine Hafiz, President of the CFCM, an umbrella group of French Muslim organizations. On the other hand, Cristphe Bertossi, a French citizenship academic (whatever that means!), wonders if the government has the right to "tell people what to believe and what clothes they must wear." Which is it?

I don`t know.

Profound, isn`t it?

 Still, I do know that there is a growing problem of anti-Muslim discrimination in the West, be it "Obama is a Muslim" rumor mongers, airport officials harassing an American citizen for possession of Arabic language flashcards, "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims in southern Italy, and unwelcoming moves in France, Switzerland, and so many other countries.

 We`d better find a way to handle these issues more effectively. We don`t really want one-fifth of the world upset with us. And there must be a way to balance the needs for safety and national unity with the needs for religious freedom and diversity. There must be. There just must be.

Any ideas?