[Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part series on the Swiss minaret ban. Read the first entry here.]
Europe’s religious leaders—including the Vatican, the Swiss Catholic bishops, and the Conference of European Rabbis—have condemned the ban on minaret construction imposed by a nearly three-to-two majority in a referendum of Swiss voters. The Elizabeth Church, Basel’s oldest Protestant house of worship, declared its bell-tower to be a minaret in protest against the ban and brought a Turkish imam to the church to bless the transformation—although the Turkish government has rebuffed numerous requests to permit the construction of a Protestant church. Prima facie, Switzerland’s voters have restricted the symbolic manifestation of a religion, if not its practice. It would be hard for Catholic, Protestant or Jewish clergy to respond otherwise.
We have heard for years of the “Arab Street”—call this the debut of the “European Street.” A scissors has opened between the sentiment of European voters and the positions of mainstream leaders. The sponsor of the referendum resolution, the Swiss People’s Party, has about a quarter of the national vote, but it pulled 57.5 percent of the vote for this symbolic slap to Islam. The Swiss initiative was cleverly designed: The minaret ban combines the maximum insult to Muslim pride with the minimum infringement of actual religious practice. Six hundred years after the Battle of Sempach the Swiss evidently know how to pick a fight.
Switzerland’s unique system emphasizes direct votes on major issues, and it is very likely that if the Dutch and other Europeans were allowed to vote directly on such issues, the result would be similar. The Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who came to prominence attacking radical Islam and unrestricted immigration, polled second in his country’s 2009 elections. Like the Swiss People’s Party, the Freedom Party has nothing in common with the extreme right—it is allied with the Dutch trade unions on some major economic issues.
Popular hostility to Islam often is misrepresented as a reaction against radical Islam; as Rabbi Aba Dunner, the head of the Conference of European Rabbis said December 4, “ Europe cannot beat radical Islam by knocking down minarets.” On the contrary, the trouble lies in the moderate position, articulated forcefully by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statement that “assimilation [of Muslim immigrants into European culture] is a crime against humanity,” in a speech before 20,000 Muslim immigrants in Germany.
Erdogan’s tirade against assimilation rankled German politicians. Prominent German conservatives have rebuffed Erdogan’s comments. Erwin Huber, the head of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union, fumed, “Erdogan preached Turkish nationalism on German soil.” But the official German response has been to import professors from the theology faculty of Ankara University to train Muslim clergy and teachers for the growing cohort of Turkish children in German schools.
It is not only Erdogan, but also Europe’s institutions—including its churches—who seem determined to prevent Muslim assimilation. According to the leading Italian journalist Magdi Cristiano Allam, whom Benedict XVI received into the Catholic Church on the Easter vigil of 2008, large numbers of Muslim immigrants already have converted, but are afraid to admit this for fear of violence. After his conversion Allam said:
His Holiness has sent an explicit and revolutionary message [by personally receiving Allam into the Church] to a Church that until now has been too prudent in the conversion of Muslims, abstaining from proselytizing in majority Muslim countries and keeping quiet about the reality of converts in Christian countries. Out of fear. The fear of not being able to protect converts in the face of their being condemned to death for apostasy and fear of reprisals against Christians living in Islamic countries. Well, today Benedict XVI, with his witness, tells us that we must overcome fear and not be afraid to affirm the truth of Jesus even with Muslims.
On the contrary, Magdi Allam was left to his own devices following his high-profile conversion and the Vatican has shown no interest in the predicament of Muslim converts. A leading Jesuit Islamologist excoriated the pope in the Jesuit monthly Popoli shortly afterwards for failing to renounce proselytization of Muslims. This seems to have prevailed.
Whether Muslim immigrants to Europe are assimilable is unclear, since Europe’s institutions have made no effort to assimilate them. And in the absence of efforts to integrate Muslims, the extremist minority has free reign. In a recent speech, Gert Wilders expressed the anguish of Europeans at the cultural dissonance:
All throughout Europe a new reality is rising: entire Muslim neighborhoods where very few indigenous people reside or are even seen. And if they are, they might regret it. This goes for the police as well. It’s the world of head scarves, where women walk around in figureless tents, with baby strollers and a group of children. . . . These are Muslim ghettos controlled by religious fanatics. These are Muslim neighborhoods, and they are mushrooming in every city across Europe. These are the building-blocks for territorial control of increasingly larger portions of Europe, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. There are now thousands of mosques throughout Europe. With larger congregations than there are in churches. And in every European city there are plans to build super-mosques that will dwarf every church in the region. Clearly, the signal is: We rule.
Bernard Lewis famously predicted a Muslim majority in Europe by the end of the century. Whether this will occur is unclear; European countries assiduously avoid reporting birth rates by religion. But the enormous and growing presence of Islamic institutions in Europe jars the existing culture, and provides a host for a truly frightening extremist minority.
Abandoned by their leaders, Switzerland’s voters took matters into their own hands. It is hard not to recall the famous lines of from the Swiss national drama, Schiller’s William Tell: “When oppression becomes intolerable, you reach into the heaven and grab hold of your eternal rights, which are hanging up there, inalienable and indestructible as the stars themselves.” Of course it is the wrong way to respond to an urgent problem. But if Europe’s leaders exclude the right way to respond, the European street will choose whatever way remains.
David Goldman is senior editor of First Things.