The Swiss don't want this either. Carpet in an Istanbul bazaar. Photo : Markb120/Flickr

Is Islam good for Europe?

The Swiss referendum on minarets has re-ignited the debate about Islam in Europe. While Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan stresses Muslims’ cultural contributions to Europe, journalist Arcadi Espada argues that religion is not a desirable calling card in Europe.

Published on 2 December 2009 at 17:06
The Swiss don't want this either. Carpet in an Istanbul bazaar. Photo : Markb120/Flickr

I understand Tariq Ramadan (more or less) when he says: “It is difficult for ordinary citizens to embrace this new Muslim presence as a positive factor.” Ramadan traces that difficulty to what he calls “so many controversial debates” with which Islam is “connected”: e.g. “violence, extremism, freedom of speech, gender discrimination, forced marriage, to name a few”.

But Ramadan ought to allow that anything affecting freedom and life in general is no minor matter, and each of the debates he mentions affects them utterly. So it does not seem entirely insane for the European public to distrust Muslims. All these “controversial” things are done in Allah’s name, though I have no doubt some acts of kindness may be done in his name as well.

Nevertheless, I do not believe this is the crux of the debate or the grounds for the European rejection, or even disdain, that Ramadan discusses. As a European, I would fain ask him, in all candour, why would Muslims be a positive factor. What defines a Muslim is his faith and that alone. Why then should European secularism accept as “positive” a person whose only calling card is his creed? Would we accept someone who introduces himself in public by saying, “I’m Catholic, in other words, I’m a positive factor”?

Europeans see churches, but not mosques, as cultural

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One of the great and hard-earned tenets of Europe is that religion does not open the gates of moral heaven. Religion is but a factor, and a debatable one at that. I can accept Ramadan’s saying that the Arab presence is positive – as though he were saying the same of the Chinese presence. But I fail to see what is positive about the contribution of religiously defined conduct.

What lies behind the Swiss rejection of minarets is, in all likelihood, the very racism and intolerance some believers and laypersons suppose. But there might also be a more subtle and elusive motive that merits consideration. Many Europeans in our day look at the old Christian churches in a manner wholly devoid of faith. They perceive them as purely cultural objects, which they are as well. Now this is very hard to do with minarets, even with what remains of Muslim architecture in Spain. In minarets, old and new alike, religion reigns supreme, alone, despotic. Which is an intrinsically negative factor for present-day Europe.


Loss of identity and fear of Islam

“Until not so long ago, many Europeans believed in their kings and queens, waved their national flag, sang their national anthem, and learned heroic episodes of their national history. Their country was their home. Identity was not yet regarded as a problem,” writer/journalist Ian Buruma opines in theNew York Review of Books. “Most of us now live in a secular, liberal, disenchanted world. Europeans are freer than ever before: the priests no longer tell us what to do or think. But this freedom has a price: emancipation from faith has not always brought happiness – on the contrary, it has often given rise to confusion, fear, resentment. Muslims are envied because they still have a faith, they know who they are and they hold values worth dying for” – at least this is how most Europeans see them. “The tall minarets and veiled visages represent a threat because they rub salt in the wounds of those suffering from the loss of faith.” It can only be hoped that “liberal democracies will weather this age of malaise, resist the pressures of demagoguery and succeed in curbing violent impulses. We would be better off holding fewer referendums because, contrary to what we might think, they end up weakening democracy, obliging our leaders to cater for the gut reactions of the enraged instead of governing sensibly."

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