On Nov. 29, the Swiss approved a ban on the future construction of minarets.
Minarets have become an international icon of the Islamic faith. They are the tall, slender towers that usually stand outside a mosque and have historically been used to call the faithful to prayer five times a day.
While they have been compared to the old Catholic and Protestant bell towers, minarets are far more meaningful for Muslims. Therefore, one is compelled to ask, “Why a ban?”
One would think that the Swiss were concerned about the towers affecting the skyline of their historic cities or even a concern about the regular call to prayer intruding upon non-Muslim citizens. Neither was the case. Switzerland has only a few hundred mosques, and only four currently have minarets. Of the four that have a minaret, none broadcasts the call to prayer. This is in accordance with Swiss noise pollution laws.
Therefore, why a ban? The call for a ban started with a push by the Swiss People’s Party (SPP) in the spring of 2007. Since then, the SPP has been warning the populace about the growing influence of Islam on Swiss life and culture.
The ban appears to reflect a resistance to Islam’s growing influence in Europe. Like France and Germany, Switzerland has seen a rising Muslim population. Due to low Swiss birth rates as well as immigration, the Muslim population of Switzerland has risen in recent years to an estimated 5 percent, and the minaret ban appears to be a reaction to this demographic shift.
Just like the rest of the continent, European Muslims are now a fact of everyday life. According to the SPP and its supporters, the ban is not against Islam and people’s right to practice their faith; it is opposed to the building of minarets.
For some, these buildings are seen as an image of militant Islam. This is best seen in the advertisements used to support the initiative (see this poster). One of the most popular ads has a picture of seven minarets standing on the Swiss flag, next to a woman in a burka. The minarets are made to resemble nuclear missiles, while the woman is used as a symbol of oppression – neither of which reflects the nature of Swiss Muslims. Unfortunately, the ad campaign worked as it played on the irrational fears and emotions of many Swiss.
The Swiss ban comes with great irony and illustrates how we think about religious freedom. Switzerland has historically been a champion of religious liberty. The ban, while a violation of this tradition, illustrates our inconsistency. Often we are for religious freedom when it supports our group, or when the other group does not affect us.
But when we are affected or feel challenged, the open door of freedom is quickly slammed shut. It is easy for Baptists to become upset about the closing of a church or the expelling of missionaries in a Muslim country, but we have not always done our part to protect the rights and freedoms of our Muslim brothers and sisters.
We often forget that the door of religious liberty swings both ways. Religious liberty is not about making a place for Christianity in general and evangelicalism specifically. It is about ensuring the protection of this right for all groups.
A lack of real religious freedom damages the DNA of a society, and a failure to protect this right creates at lease three problems.
First, it stifles trust and open dialogue. This failure to communicate builds a barrier between ethnic and religious groups that yields resentment and hatred. This hatred will ultimately explode into conflict.
Second, a lack of religious freedom does not ensure that today’s majority religion will have the freedom to practice its faith in the future. If we have learned nothing from the past, we have learned that cultures change, and those in power today probably will not be in power tomorrow. When today’s majority is tomorrow’s minority, the only thing that will ensure their continued religious freedom is the gene of religious liberty.
Third, a lack of religious freedom encourages different faith groups to become isolationists. It encourages them to build giant walls to protect the group from external attacks and possible change. The isolation causes the faith group to look internally and lose sight of the rest of the world. For Christians, isolationism causes us to forget about our gospel mission.
With these things in mind, the Swiss need to rethink their recent action. But more so, we Baptists need to evaluate our beloved doctrine of religious liberty. We need to reflect on its meaning and recommit ourselves to its cause.
Monty M. Self is the instructor of spirituality at Baptist Health Schools Little Rock and the oncology chaplain for the Baptist Health Medical Center Little Rock.