Hatred or Misinformation & How to counter it

By Abidullah Ghazi
Executive Director of IQRA’ Int’l Educational Foundation
When you think of Switzerland what comes to your mind? Of course I am referring to before the Minaret Vote. Let me tell you what comes to my mind: natural Alpine beauty, precision watches, secured bank accounts, international peace and harmony, pluralism in practice and much more- all of which is positive.

After learning about the November 29, 2009 vote, which sanctioned the banning of minarets attached to Swiss mosques, and reading about the borderline Islamophobe campaign launched by the Swiss Peoples Party (SVP) and the Federal Democratic Union (EDU), our image of Switzerland becomes less than ideal. For many of us it has changed to one of duplicity, bigotry and intolerance. How 57% of Swiss voters could approve a referendum banning the construction of minarets in their country, which has rich heritage of tolerance? Perhaps, it is a new turn in European politics. In reality, minarets aren’t the issue. A minaret is not integral part of a mosque nor is it required by Islamic law; it is merely a symbol, which distinguishes a Mosque from other places of worship. The issue is much deeper, as we shall see. Switzerland is now the home of 400,000 Muslims, who have, for the most part, lived in this historically multi-ethnic state peacefully and neighborly. They have some two hundred mosques in the country, of which only four have minarets. Although there were several more pending applications before the authorities to build minarets; such requests were more often than not rejected on technical grounds and the Muslim community stoically accepted this. A national controversy, however, surfaced some four years ago when members of a Turkish association in the town of Wangen bei Olten applied to erect six-foot-tall minaret on its premises. The permit was initially denied by local canton administrators, but with a successful appeal to the federal Supreme Court, permission was granted for the construction of this religious symbol. To the dismay of local canton and other adversaries, the minaret was erected in July of 2009. Since 2007 the EDU party attempted at both the cantons and the federal level to obtain legislation to ban the construction of any minaret on Swiss soil. This endeavor failed to pass in individual cantons, but it succeeded, surprisingly, in a federal referendum.

EDU mobilized several groups for this campaign, in launching what was, for all practical purposes, a hate campaign drenched in Islamophobia. Anti-minaret posters and advertisement illustrated minarets as black rockets flanked by burqa-clad females. In doing this, the minaret is manipulated to become a symbol of militant fanaticism and the burqa the implementation of Shari’ah in Switzerland. The result of this campaign has been the vandalization of several mosques and marked division in its Swiss society.

Yet this vote in Switzerland is not really an issue about the position of Islamic architecture in the West, but rather it is about the future of Muslims existing as a minority in Western Europe, where in most countries they are the largest minority; and their numbers increase yearly by birth, immigration and conversion. It is the fear that, as Dr. Tariq Ramadan informs us, expresses itself in various forms throughout Europe: “In France it is the headscarf or burqa; in Germany mosques; in Britain violence; in Denmark Cartoons; homosexuality in Netherlands - and so on.”

A number of demographic predictions are frightening to the indigenous populations of Western Europe and as a result, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant groups now thrive on profiling and stereotyping Muslims. There is a constant criticism of Muslims and Islam, mostly focusing on a litany of predictable criticisms: terrorism, violence, “Jihadism,” “Dhimmitude”, status of women, rejection of and homosexuals and honor-killings etc. Even if these criticism have their validity (and some of them and certain places certainly do), Muslims are a widely divergent group, numbering over 1.4 billion worldwide, living in unrelated, unconnected geographic regions of the world, speaking many languages, and practicing widely different customs.

How is it, then, that crime of any one person or group becomes the fault of the entire Muslim World? If ethno- religious labels are to be put on each and every criminal in Western societies, we’ll certainly find Muslims outnumbered by Christians, Jews or other ethnic and religious groups, with a wide margin. However, assigning blame will not resolve the issues that separate us as human beings or the misinformation that divides us. We have to develop a new paradigm for co-existence and mutual trust.

While bigotry against Islam and Muslims is on the rise in Europe and America, it should be heartening to know that major efforts for dialogue, conciliation, and understanding are taking place across world among the mainstream individuals and groups, and in this Muslims are active partners. In America under the presidency of President Obama, Muslims are overcoming the effects of the eight years of the previous administrations uncertainties and veiled threats. Perhaps Europe also needs clear-headed leadership to confidently address these issues. The Swiss vote has a symbolic significance which goes beyond the number of votes or its immediate impact. It has brought, first and foremost, an embarrassment to the proud Swiss people and many groups in the country who oppose this aberration of their tradition of broadmindedness. All religious denominations, Catholics, Protestant, Jewish, and all decent people have vigorously opposed this move and condemned it. United Nations, The Vatican, The European Union, among so many others, have openly condemned the vote and asked for a reversal of its decision as soon as possible. The broader issues that this incident and other such incidents in Europe raise are much more important than this unconstructive vote; it is about securing a future for Muslim minority in Western Europe. Unfortunately, Europe has very bleak history of ethnic and religious intolerance: from the myriad of religious wars fought on its soil, to two World Wars culminating in Holocaust, to the recent genocide in Bosnia. One would be hard-pressed to find comparable bloodshed in Muslim history. Yet we have to admit that Muslims possess numerous grave political and socio-religious tribulations and they must be addressed and rectified.

For those of us Muslims who have chosen to live in the West, who are taking full advantage of its wealth, resources, freedoms and opportunities, have to adjust to the social, political and economic realities of our new homelands and take initiatives that would produce positive results. There is no dearth of people of goodwill who would be our willing partners in our struggle to safeguard our rights and be part of building a civic society. It important that Muslims in Western societies, or living as a minority anywhere, hold dialogues, discussion and symposia on interfaith, inter-cultural and inter-community relations addressing following concerns:

1.    Find out and positively respond to the anxieties and concerns of the majority population vis-à-vis Muslim communities.
2.    Develop plans and strategies to address misconceptions and misunderstandings.
3.    Actively participate and contribute in various social, political, and economic endeavors.
4.    Muslims must cultivate media (as well create their own media), and supply right information and Muslim perspective to everyone.
5.    Shed our own prejudices as Muslims; make an effort to appreciate the values of the society we live in, that attracted us and become indispensable part of its public square. All these efforts need short and long term planning. It needs the establishment of institutions that far surpass mosques and week-end schools. In most of Muslims communities in the West, this process has not yet begun. We must expedite this process and support all such efforts. Fortunately for us, Christian, Jewish, ethnic and cultural communities offer role models to establish our own institutions and as we have come to discover, they are more often willing partners in our human endeavors.

Dr. Abidullah Ghazi, MSc, econ London; PhD Harvard) is the executive director and founder of IQRA’ International Educational Foundation; he is a prolific writer, community activist and one of the Five Hundred Most Influential Muslims in the world as listed by the HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University. (HA)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 January 2010 on page no. 27

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