Category Archives: Islam

The Swiss ban on minarets

Last Sunday, 28 November, the Swiss approved in referendum a ban on the construction of new minarets. While it is usually stressed that minarets are not an essential element in a mosque, this ban is an undeniable form of discrimination aimed against the Muslim community.

The construction of this 6 meters high minaret was the motivation for the launch of the referendum.

Switzerland is a very peculiar country, with unique political traditions. It has a much stronger tendency for self-isolation than any other country in Western Europe and the outcome of this referendum reflects that tendency.

In any society, religious buildings serve as visible markers of the presence of a community. In any town, the location, volume and style of each religious building reveals a lot about the religious community that it serves, but also about the society in which this community is integrated.

It is undeniable that the construction of religious buildings is often closely linked to demonstrations of power on the part of those who build them. Many examples come to my mind. The Sacré Coeur was built on the top of Montmatre after the defeat of the Commune of Paris. Overlooking the city, it was a powerful reminder of the triumph  of the conservative France, “la fille ainée de l’Eglise”. The Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican has on its frontspiece the family name of the Pope Paul V, Borghese. The siege of the Patriarchate of Lisbon, the Sé Catedral of Lisbon was built on the location of a mosque shortly after the Christian forces conquered it to the Moors (1147). The church underwent many transformations overtime and in the 1930s was restored to acquire  medieval aspect. This was part of the cultural policy of the dictatorial regime of Salazar in that phase, to enhance the ancestry of Portugal and its glorious past.

But the presence of religious buildings also reveals the ability of a society to cope with diversity. In Portugal, the first Synagogue to be built after the forced conversion of the Jews, inaugurated in 1904, is hidden in a courtyard behind another building, with no façade to the street, because the law did not allow non-Catholic worship places to have their entry visible from the street (the law nonetheless was a positive step away from centuries of total intolerance to other religions). An opposite example is the city of Sarajevo, where, within a few minutes walking distance, stand the Mosque, the Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals and the Synagogue. It was precisely this diversity that Serb nationalists tried to destroy (and, to a large extent, did succeed).

The construction of mosques as a demonstration of power is a goal pursued in many European countries by radical and conservative Muslims, who benefit from the financial support of authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia. The question of transparency over financial organization of religious organizations is a major issue in any democratic society, as the problems surrounding the pseudo-religion of Scientology have shown us. As with all human activities in a free society, the question of the abuse of religious freedom is very relevant for the balance and strength of democracy, and the challenge posed in specific by the Islamist political ideology, who appropriates the religious legacy of Islam to legitimize its totalitarian goals cannot be ignored.

But this is not what was put up for referendum. What was put up for referendum was a measure that aimed at the legalization of discrimination of one religion in particular. This was not about having safeguards against the misuse of religion for political purposes, and it wasn’t about the need to contain Islamic extremism either .

Many people have interpreted the outcome of this referendum as a reflex of people’s fear over the real or imagined threat of Islam. But, with the Muslims  comprising 5% of the total population and no recorded incidents with Islamic extremists, why should the Swiss be afraid?

This ban, after a xenophobic and openly racist campaign launched by the far right is rather a reflex of the Swiss tendency for self-isolation. By banning the construction of new minarets, what the Swiss are in fact saying is that they cannot tolerate the presence of Muslims to become visible.

The preservation of the beautiful skyline of Swiss towns has often been invoked. The landscape is undoubtedly one of the most important elements of Swiss collective identity. But, was Switzerland magnificent landscape under threat? So far, only four mosques had minarets, all of which of modest height. The controversy that lead to the referendum was about the attempt to prevent the construction of a 6 meters high minaret in the mosque of a small town. As you can see in the picture, the impact on the skyline is rather modest. Even if the ban had been rejected, any projected minaret would have to comply with urbanistic regulations which are, in Switzerland, rather strict. So, had the ban not been approved, that wouldn’t mean that minarets would grow like mushrooms after the rain.

A dangerous ideal of purity underlies this ban. This happened in Switzerland, a small country  with an atypical political system, but  it reflects  and resounds on a growing phenomenon of xenophobia around Europe, of which the Muslims are now the main target.

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Filed under Europe, Islam

Some texts on Islamic communities in Bosnia, Sandjak and Kosovo

One of the biggest problems for someone interested in understanding the region of the former Yugoslavia is how to assess the credibility of the sources available. This is so even for researchers and scholars, but even more for average citizens who take some of their limited free time to look through the internet for articles and documents that may help them to go deeper than the small articles on news sites.

I remember the case of a blog in portuguese that I used to read, and whose author I appreciated and regarded as a serious, honest and intelligent person (I still do, but I am now more aware of his prejudices). This author, an academic with a PhD in Physics, was deeply engaged in the fight for secularism and against religious extremism. His blogging was part of a wider civic engagement which I respect and admire. Unfortunately, his concern regarding radical islam made him prone to Serb nationalist propaganda. When Kosova declared its independence, he published a post claiming that Kosova was a country dominated by radical islam, etc, etc, etc.

I was appalled, not so much for the fact that we didn’t agree on the issue of the Independence of Kosova, but because he was using as his source the Serbian nationalist site Serbianna and was accriticaly replicating a bunch of lies. It stroke me that an intelligent and educated person like him did not bother to take some time to evaluate the reliability of the sources he was using.

The fact is that this blog had a good audience and its readers tended to trust the good judgement of its authors regarding sources, even when they didn’t agree with is opinion. I am not mentioning the blog’s name because it is not relevant, this is not a personal attack, I left my opinion on its comment box, this is just an illustrative case of how difficult it is to fight the dominant prejudices regarding the Balkans and its peoples, and how even reasonable, moderate, educated people can be deceived by propaganda.

I decided to write this post because today I clicked on the wordpress tag “Kosovo” and found a blog written by someone who claims to have lived there, and to know a lot about the region, and there was this text about radical Islam in Bosnia. The post was very bad, and on his link list he had serious resources mixed with nationalist propaganda and genocide denial websites. It has happened to me quite often that people who have spent more time in the region that I did uses that as an argument of authority, and it seemed to be the case also with this blogger.

There is a whole body of literature analysing the impact of travellers accounts on the distortion of the image of contryes considered to be ‘exotic’ and the spread of prejudices about their peoples. Belonging myself to a country whose image suffers a lot because of its perceived ‘exotism’, I am aware of this problem and try not to focus too much on my personal impressions when I am researching and writting. It is not the fact that a person is living for years in, say, Serbia, and speaks serbian, that qualifies that person as an authoritive voice about Serbia. One is entitled to have an opinion and share one’s personal impressions, but the problem is that too often the temptation to lecture about it is impossible to resist, especially among bloggers.

So, today when I read this blog I really felt that it is important to fight this kind of obfuscation, by linking some texts that I think are well researched, balanced and reliable. They were written by Juan Carlos Antunez, a spanish military who has pursued studies on Islam, speaks Bosnian and Arab, and lived and worked until recently in Sarajevo as an international functionary.

Not everybody has to be an expert, but when we want to inform ourselves, the choice of sources is something we must take very seriously. However, for non-experts, it is sometimes hard to find texts that don’t demand much previous knowledge. I think the texts that i’m linking are very accessible even for someone who knows nothing on this issue.

In english:

Wahabism in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Published in two parts on the website of the Bosnian Institute. Part One here, Part two here

This paper was written primarily with the goal of providing some basic but accurate information to international functionaries in Bosnia.

An excerpt:

“””

For most International Community (IC) personnel, this is the first time in their careers that they have had to deal with any kind of Islamic issue. Part of the local media, often biased by nationalistic or/and political interests, have tried to present the problem of Wahhabism in B-H as a growing tendency that is a threat to safety and security not only in the country but also in the rest of Europe. These media have used a discourse very similar to that used at the beginning of the 90’s, changing the term ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ by ‘Wahhabism’. On the other hand, media close to the Bosniak establishment have tried to ‘hide’ any evidence of the Wahhabi presence in B-H, or at least to play down the importance of the phenomenon.

Most of the information gathered until now is based on the regurgitation of media or biased spread of rumours without further confirmation. A serious analysis must try to define who is a real follower of Wahhabism, in order to avoid misinterpretations. Only then can proper proposals be developed for stopping the ‘reported’ growing tendency, and reversing it.

This is a paper on the situation of Wahhabism in B-H, intended to represent original thinking about the real picture of the Islamic community in the country and not a ‘regurgitation of open-source wisdom’.

“””

In spanish: published on Athena Intelligence, a spanish research centre on terrorism and armed conflicts, with a particular emphasys on Islamic terrorism.

Presencia yihadista en Bosnia y Herzegovina,Athena Intelligence,  n.2/8 (3/4/2008)

Sandjak: un inestabile región entre Bosnia y Herzegovina y Kosovo, Athena Intelligence, December 2007.

Islamismo radical en Kosovo, Athena Intellingence, n.2/8 (3/4/2008)

Sorry for the non-spanish readers!

I’ll return to this subject and specifically to these articles when I have some time, which will not happen before the new year.

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Filed under Bosnia, Islam, Kosovo, Sandjak, Serbia