When I first heard about the recent Swiss referendum to ban minarets in the country, all I could think about was how unexpected it was to get such a hostile action from the Swiss. Weren’t they supposed to be the all loving, peaceful, neutral European country?
Apparently not. The Swiss clearly are just as freaked out about the surging Muslim population in their country as many of their European neighbors. It should be noted that far-right parties in Italy, Netherlands, and Belgium all welcomed the Swiss referendum, and called for similar measures to be taken at home.
All this makes me think about an article I read a few years ago in Foreign Affairs called, “Europe’s Angry Muslims.” It was horribly offensive and it outlined major European nations’ problems with integrating their Muslim communities: The Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, Moroccans in Spain, and Pakistanis in London.
To give the article some credit, it was a brutally honest analysis of Europe’s growing “Muslim problem.” It was also the first time the threat Muslims pose to European secular culture was articulated to me.
Initially I thought the Swiss were having a delayed reaction to their Muslim population, but after reading H.A.’s Hellyer’s “Daily Beast” piece on how Europe’s Muslims should respond to the Swiss, I see that Switzerland’s move has to do with a much larger issue of European identity.
In his article, former Brookings Institute Fellow Hellyer states that, “Muslims are not a comfortable reality for much of Europe…Muslim Europeans are a problem. They adhere to a religion which for many centuries had provided many Europeans with an “alter-civilization” by which to judge themselves.”
This point makes me think of renown literary theorist Edward Said’s book (read: masterpiece) Orientalism. In it, Said states that the West has always defined itself against the Orient, against the “Other.” He stipulates that one basis for European colonialism was the feminization of the Orient, of the East as a wild, untamed woman that must be controlled and contained.
So what happens when the “Other” moves into your country and becomes a citizen? Demands the same rights as you? If you begin to view the situation from this perspective, you begin to understand the roots of European paranoia. It also becomes startlingly clear to you how insecure contemporary European identity must be, so easily threatened.
This however does not vindicate what is happening in Switzerland. The fact of the matter is that hostility towards Muslims in Europe is rising. I have written previously about the need for American Muslims to do more to provide tangible responses that clearly separate us from the violent acts committed in the name of Islam.
But it’s a different ballgame for European Muslims. You hear so many calls about the need for Muslims to “better integrate” themselves into European society. But how can they really when European laws such as this Swiss law and the ban of the burqa in France make it so difficult for Muslims to even pretend to be equal citizens with their fellow Europeans? Blatantly prejudiced legislation against Muslims is not only still being authored and introduced, it is even praised by other European nations.
So what does the future hold for Europe’s Muslims? Hellyer prompts us to be cautious optimists. He reminds us that one of the reasons America even exists is because of Europe’s “historically bad record on respect for diversity,” and inability to “cope with pluralism.”
While what is happening in Switzerland today gives an opportunity for Swiss Muslims to stand up, speak out against this blatant discrimination (just look at the Swiss People’s Party’s poster!), and demonstrate their peaceful contributions to their societies, I have to agree with Hellyer. I fear this is another very troubling sign of growing Islamophobia in Europe- and increasing isolation of its Muslim populations.
*This post of mine was also published on The Huffington Post.