Soundings

Claire Berlinski
The Wrong Ban
Switzerland’s misguided prohibition of minarets
Winter 2010

My qualifications as an alarmist about the Islamization of Europe are second to none, according to my critics. But even I cannot find a good legal, political, or moral argument for Swiss voters’ decision, in a November referendum, to ban the building of minarets. Legally, it introduces a contradiction into the Swiss constitution, which is quite clear on this point: “Nobody may be discriminated against, namely for his or her . . . religious, philosophical, or political convictions.” If a citizen has a right to erect a cross, in other words, his fellow citizen must have the right to erect a minaret. This isn’t a minor technical point. The antidiscrimination article is not in the Swiss constitution arbitrarily. We in the West do not believe in banning religious symbols; that’s one of the key reasons we consider our societies superior to those that do. How can anyone in Switzerland be taken seriously now if he criticizes the Saudis for refusing to permit the building of churches?

Strategically, too, the ban is stupid. For one thing, it hands moral and rhetorical ammunition to useful idiots who defend Islamic extremists. (That it also hands ammunition to the Islamic extremists themselves goes without saying, but is beside the point; they will hate the West in any event.) For another, you can win a battle with a political program, but you cannot win a battle with God. No one in history ever has.

Supporters of the ban have argued that the minaret is not a religious but a political symbol. Seriously? Just look at a minaret. Almost all world religions have given rise to a similar architectural impulse: the campanile, the church spire, the ziggurat, the pyramid, the pagoda, the stupa, the śikhara. It is a near-universal instinct of the faithful to build structures that reach heavenward. (One of the exceptions, by the way, is Wahhabism—one of the strains of politico-Islamic thought that should have Europeans most concerned—which scorns minarets as excessively ostentatious.)

Symbols of faith (or of political programs, for that matter) shouldn’t be banned; a self-confident civilization can live quite happily with offensive political symbols in its midst, as tens of thousands of Che Guevara posters affixed to walls around American college campuses attest. What should be banned are the crimes committed by too many Muslims in Europe: forced marriage, honor killing, genital mutilation, Jew-killing, gay-bashing. Ban—obviously—terrorism and collusion with terrorist groups.

Swiss citizens concerned by the threat of Islamic radicalism might consider outlawing, too, their country’s current status as a financial haven for terrorist groups and the regimes that sponsor them. Consider the case of Rothstein et al. v. UBS AG, a lawsuit against Switzerland’s biggest bank filed last year in a New York federal court by victims of terrorist attacks against Israel. As the plaintiffs note, UBS has transferred tens of millions in hard currency to Iran since 1996, funding Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and leading to rocket attacks and suicide bombings in the Jewish state. Because UBS has offices in New York, the plaintiffs argue, this violates an American law prohibiting “any United States person from knowingly engaging in financial transactions with the government of a country designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.”

Hamas also raises money through a network of phony charities in Europe, including the Association de Secours Palestinien (ASP), headquartered in Basel. Plaintiffs in another recently filed suit seek to hold the same Swiss bank, UBS, liable for the 2004 bombing of Bus Number 19 in Jerusalem, which killed 11 people and wounded 50. The bank, they note, transferred money from the ASP’s Swiss account to the Tulkarem Zakat Committee in the West Bank, directly funding the attack. How about banning that practice?

Or consider American officials’ recent visits to Switzerland to warn that the Iranian government is concealing its identity in deals with Swiss banks, the better to fund its uranium-enrichment program. The Swiss response? “Switzerland’s banks will welcome any Iran transfers,” Reuters reported last May, noting these remarks from the director of the Geneva Financial Center: “If you’re talking in terms of a safe haven proposal, that’s where Switzerland is very strong, stronger than Singapore or other places. We are a country that is non-judgmental.” Where’s Swiss intolerance when you really need it?

It gets worse: over the strongest objections of the United States, Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft Laufenburg of Switzerland signed a $42 billion natural-gas supply deal with Iran. Still worse: to “entice Iran to rejoin the international community,” the Swiss president confidentially suggested to her Iranian counterpart that Switzerland might hold a conference in which “various perceptions of the Holocaust” would be examined. There is a world of difference, I note, between tolerating offensive speech and holding government conferences to promote it. I’d suggest banning the latter.

There are 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland, most there legally. This is a fact; it will not change. The message to them should be clear: “We reject entirely aspects of Islamic faith and tradition incompatible with Western values. We will not help nutcase Islamist regimes acquire nuclear weapons and deny the Holocaust. If you want to worship God in a peaceful way, however, more power to you.”

Europeans should be concerned about Islamic immigration and what it represents for the future of Europe. They should be saying that many immigrants have brought intolerable practices and values with them. But the practice of building minarets isn’t one of them.

Claire Berlinski, a contributing editor of City Journal, is the author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too.

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