The news story is by now well known. This past Sunday, the Swiss voted to ban the construction of minarets throughout the country. The vote, which was preceded by a heated campaign, including controversy over what some viewed as an incendiary campaign poster (see right), raises a whole host of questions not only dealing with current geopolitics, but really make us re-evaluate some of our core political and social beliefs. Here are some:
What is a minaret? Is it simply an adornment? Does it have a purely religious function? Does it symbolize power (as the right populist party would have us believe)?
What is religious freedom? Is it simply allowing people to practice their religion without persecution, or does religious freedom mean allowing any type of expression – in this case a minaret – that a religion deems of importance? (Note that there are many mosques as well as four minarets in Switzerland.)
As Jews, are we morally obliged to support religious freedom, no matter what? Or do we deep down have a visceral anti-Islam sentiment? Are some of us happy with the result?
What do we, as a Western society, aspire to? I’ve heard the following argument more than once in the past weeks: “In Saudi they won’t allow Christians to practice, let alone build churches, so why should we allow it here?” But shouldn’t we pride ourselves on our evolved, supposedly tolerant, society?
What is freedom of expression? Is it bound by any societal standards, or do we allow all to voice their opinion?
What strikes me is how this whole minaret story – beginning with the controversy over the campaign poster and ending with the vote on Sunday – played out exactly in the inverse of how it would in the US.
In Switzerland, real debate surrounded the legality of the campaign poster, and some cantons even voted to ban it. In the US, unless a direct causal link from a form of expression to an act of violence can be drawn, we allow any expression, no matter how hateful it is. This freedom is enshrined in the First Amendment, along with the freedom of religion, which means that the US would never even entertain the idea of banning minarets – which in Switzerland is now an addendum to the constitution.
This vote leaves me conflicted. On the one hand, had I been able to vote, I could never have in good conscience supported the initiative. I have to admit, though, a part of me is glad the initiative was passed. I rationalize that the ability and ease for Muslims to practice their religion has not in fact changed and that the decision was democratically made.
But then another part of me looks at the campaign poster and sees the colors: black, white, red – painfully reminiscent of another democratically elected political group. Are these the kinds of initiatives that people ignored back in the early 1930s?
One last question to ponder.