Minarets and Slender Arguments

If it did nothing else, Switzerland’s vote to ban the building of minarets drew attention to Europe’s identity crisis. The Swiss – like the French, or the Germans, or the British for that matter – are clearly worried about the Muslims living among them.

The Swiss vote (which may end up getting knocked down by the European Court of Human Rights) has succeeded in shifting the focus away from the social and economic problems of immigration and toward religion. To put the full weight of Europe’s cultural identity crisis on a slender spire of traditional architecture meant risking a dangerous debate, which has now erupted, and not only in Switzerland.

Previous debates about the role of Islam in Europe involved issues other than religion. The 2004 French ban on head scarves in schools was about the submission of women; the 2005 publication of Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad was about free speech.

A minaret, by contrast, is no more and no less than a symbol. Other religious symbols draw protest – a nativity scene in front of City Hall, say, or a cross on a mountaintop – but they, unlike the minaret, are not part of a house of worship.

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