"Muslims are now ‘us’ not ‘them’"

Whatever your beliefs, computers are playing an increasing role in Swiss schools Daniel Winkler

Four months after banning the construction of minarets, the Swiss are using Islam as an excuse to avoid re-defining themselves, says an expert on Muslim integration.

This content was published on March 11, 2010 - 14:24

H.A. Hellyer, who this week spoke at a discussion held by the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies at Neuchâtel University, tells he is more concerned by the “festering discontent” that led to the ban than the ban itself.

His comments come as Switzerland tries to untangle a 20-month diplomatic stand-off with Libya, whose leader Moammar Gaddafi last month called for a holy war against the Swiss.

Also, on Thursday Switzerland opposed a move by several states at the United Nations Human Rights Council to denounce “Islamophobic” bans on building new minarets on mosques (see box). In November, 57.5 per cent of Swiss voters backed a ban on the construction of minarets. Were you surprised?

HA Hellyer: I was surprised that it came out of Switzerland. I think everybody was surprised, judging by how most Swiss politicians, the UN Human Rights Commissioner and so many European governments responded, but I’m not entirely surprised that it happened in Europe.

I think there have been a lot of signs for at least five years that something like this was going to happen somewhere in Europe as we look at the rise of the far right – and not just its rise as a particular political movement, but the rise of its influence in dictating mainstream politics. The minaret vote has generally been interpreted as not being against Muslims but rather as a signal by voters against the spread of Islam. Why is there this desire to “put a brake” on Islam?

H.A.H.: First, I’d question [that interpretation]. You have to ask the victim how he or she feels about being victimised. From reports, the Muslim community in Switzerland definitely felt targeted by this vote and we can see it in how they responded to the inflammatory statements that were taking place beforehand.

Second, I’m sure there were some parts of the [Swiss] community that voted for the measure not wanting it to be directed at Muslims as individuals but as some sort of symbolic gesture against the influence of Islam across the country. I find that quite surprising because there aren’t exactly many minarets in Switzerland – four in the entire country – and none was being suggested as broadcasting the azan [call to prayer]. People can decry what they believe to be the symbolism behind the minaret, but what is the meaning of that symbol for the Muslim community? It’s not Islamicisation or the destruction of Europe, regardless of what the far right was arguing – and we need to remember that.

I think there’s a lot more behind this than simply a fear of what Islam is or is not within a European framework. I think there’s a lot to be said for seeing what this meant on an identity level for the people who voted. In a very real way, this had virtually nothing to do with Muslims of Switzerland but with non-Muslim Swiss and what they perceived. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference has demanded that the ban be overturned. Should it?

H.A.H.: I’m less concerned about the ban being overturned than changing the conditions that led to the ban in the first place. You could have the ban overturned by legal measures in Switzerland, but that wouldn’t remove the festering discontent that led to it. There are a number of issues here that I think should be addressed, for example the influence of the far right in dictating how the discussion proceeds. There are more things at stake here than simply a ban.

A ban on a minaret is just a ban on a particular type of building. If the feeling that led to the ban is allowed to continue and develop, we could see a lot worse. Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi has called for holy war against Switzerland. What effect do events like that abroad have on Muslim integration here?

H.A.H.: Libya is another country on another continent and I don’t think the statements of a Libyan politician should have any impact whatsoever on domestic issues within Switzerland. Just because he happens to be a Muslim and is saying things that carry a certain amount of Islamic vocabulary and symbolic language, I don’t think that’s particularly relevant.

The Swiss Muslim population has nothing to do with the Libyan political regime and quite frankly I don’t think they should even be expected to respond. Even so, they did respond and quite obviously in support of Switzerland, and yet we are still seeing Gaddafi’s statements being reported, with the implicit idea that Muslim Swiss should somehow take up the duty of showing their loyalty. Why is it even a question? What are the greatest challenges for Switzerland regarding Muslim integration?

H.A.H.: The challenges facing Switzerland are similar in some ways to those facing other European countries – and those challenges are also distinct from the Muslim presence.

The Swiss, like all Europeans, went through a huge change in the latter half of the 20th century. Technological advances meant that people could more easily communicate with each other around the world and also move fairly easily as well. Even if there had been no migration into Switzerland at all, we would probably be seeing some of these challenges anyway, because when change hits a society as quickly as it did, a society needs to be able to redefine itself. Islam and the Muslim presence is a convenient excuse, I think, for us to escape facing that challenge: to define what we are, as opposed to what we are not.

Switzerland and all of Europe has to be able to do that with the understanding that Muslims are now “us” not “them”. Governments are able to facilitate that discussion, and I think they should.

Arguably, the media has a greater role to play, given the incredible influence they have in actually defining the discussion. Ultimately, all sections of civil society, including the Muslim community, need to play their part.

Thomas Stephens,

Minaret ban

A draft resolution proposed on March 11 by Muslim and African states for consideration at the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council condemns such bans, claiming they are contrary to international human rights obligations relating to freedoms of religion and expression.

“In principle Switzerland disagrees with the concept of a resolution devoted to the defamation of religion, which is regularly presented as part of the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council,” foreign ministry spokesman Raphaël Saborit told the Swiss News Agency.

“Switzerland defends religious freedom that protects the right of every believer to freely practise their religion, and not religion itself,” he added.

The draft resolution says a ban on minarets is a “manifestation of Islamophobia that clearly contravenes international human rights obligations concerning freedoms of religion, belief, conscience and expression”.

The text is to be put to the council for adoption before the end of its plenary session, which runs until March 26.

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H.A. Hellyer

Dr H.A. Hellyer is an academic and adviser to a number of Western governments. He is Fellow at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at Warwick University in Britain and founder-director of the West-Muslim world relations research consultancy, the Visionary Consultants Group (Britain, Egypt and Malaysia).

He was previously member of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies of Oxford University, and visiting professor at the Law Department at the American University in Cairo (Egypt).

After the July 7 bombings in London, he was nominated as deputy convener of the British government’s working group on "Tackling Extremism and Radicalisation".

In his latest book, The ‘Other’ European (published in 2009), he argues that Europe must come to terms with all of its history – past and present – and that Muslim communities should work to be integral to Europe.

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