Foreign Policy Blogs

What the Minaret Ban Says About Europe

Last Sunday, Swiss voters opted to legally ban the construction of any new minarets in the country.  Since then, the topic has been debated online and in the media, with plenty of analysis by people on both sides of the ban on what the minaret ban is really about, or what minarets are really about.  Despite the opinions offered on these questions, it is clear that last weekend’s vote put Switzerland front and center on the question of what modern Europe is really about.

Historically, Europe has always had a problem with the “other” aspect of their societies.  While the most blatant examples of this can be found with anti-Semitism, whether it be the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain or the Shoah, other groups have faced their fair share of discrimination and mistreatment due to their perceived non-Europeaness.  Such treatment continues today, as seen with the Czech government’s admission that Romani women are still being forcibly sterilized and the continuing anti-Semitism detailed by Ben Moscovitch in his blog post today.  Islamophobia is also part of this trend, and has been growing since 2001.  Although such fear may be part of human nature, it also should have no institutionalized place in Europe today.

In addition to bans on headscarves and minarets, there has been a substantial increase in violence against Muslims across Europe, but also a reluctance on the part of police forces and governments to address the problem.  Doing so essentially says to European Muslims, “You have rights, but don’t depend on us to uphold them.”  Similarly, the ban on minarets (and headscarves for that matter) essentially says, “We tolerate your religion, as long as we never have to see any sign of it.”  Unsurprisingly, this does not come as a comfort to many European Muslims and falls far short of the human rights norms of equality and freedom of expression that European countries love to proclaim.  It also creates a cycle of exclusion, which ultimately leads to the creation of two communities – the us and them, the included and the excluded, the haves and have-nots – with no bridges in between.

That is why the minaret ban is central to the question of what Modern Europe is really about, though the answer to the question is not yet clear.  In a way, the vote on minarets does pose traditional European values against something, though it is not really Islam and it is not the traditional values that anyone should be eager to preserve.  Instead, it squares them off against the modern values that Europe molded from the lessons it supposedly learned from the Holocaust and the Cold War.  The election asked Swiss voters to choose between traditional exclusion and tolerance of diversity; this time around, the voters went with tradition over progress.  The general trend across Europe has been the same.  However, it is still early in the debate.  Hopefully, the attention that the Minaret Ban is getting in the media will encourage people to look at the reasons for their prejudice, and start a constructive dialogue with the same people they have been trying to exclude rather than continue on with the regular status quo.



Kimberly J. Curtis
Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa

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