Monday, December 07, 2009

A Bit of Reciprocity Would Have Helped...

As much as I hate to admit it, I think the Swiss referendum that put a constitutional ban on the new construction of Islamic minarets on mosques may have been reasonable.

First, a story from around these parts... As you head eastbound towards Boston on Route 2, the highway begins to rise steeply shortly after you've crossed Interstate 95, and it hits its apex at a point in Belmont where the vast panorama of Boston and Cambridge suddenly appears before you as the rustic woods and ponds of Concord and beyond recede behind... Right at the crest of the hill stands an enormous Mormon Temple, a massive grey stone edifice with a towering steeple crowned by an enormous sculpture of the angel Gabriel blowing his trumpet.

It positively dwarfs everything else in the area. A much smaller Lutheran church on the other side of the highway has gamely erected a large cross which they illuminate at night, but it barely makes an impression compared to the behemoth across the way.

The construction of the temple was controversial from the day it was proposed. I have to say quite frankly that it seems very much out of character in this area, although I have an appreciation for the size of the Mormon community in Belmont. I do confess to feeling a certain sense of disquiet as I pass by it, but as a Catholic, I also realize that I need to feel an extra bit of sensitivity in this area.

For example, I must remind myself every time I see the gargantuan St. Francis de Sales church in Charlestown, perched upon a hill as if dropped there from some dreary place in Northern Ireland, and visible for miles around in every direction, that the Yankee WASPs allowed us to build our churches much larger than theirs when we arrived as largely unwelcome immigrants in this country, even though our faith was most distasteful to them. They lived true to their ideals of religious liberty and allowed us to build our churches, hospitals, and schools on a vast scale even though we were officially still preaching extra ecclesiam nulla salus at the time. When you drive through a city like Providence, RI, this is even more visible, as the enormous Catholic churches to be seen in every direction make everything else in Roger Williams' old city seem miniscule in comparison.

Civic and religious leaders in the USA have almost always stood by the principle of religious tolerance, realizing that an attack on any one religion could easily be directed against another, or against all. Why, therefore, do I think the Swiss decision is defensible?

Maybe I don't have a particularly good reason, but my gut tells me this situation is quite different somehow. Both the Vatican and the Catholic bishops of Switzerland, increasingly wary of the creeping militancy of the secular left in Europe, and wanting Islam as an ally in their advocacy for conservatism on cultural issues, have criticized the results of the referendum stating:
"The decision of the people represents an obstacle and a great challenge on the path of integration in dialogue and mutual respect.. and increases the problems of coexistence between religions and cultures... the measure will not help the Christians oppressed and persecuted in Islamic countries, but will weaken the credibility of their commitment in these countries."
That may all be true, but as far as mutual respect and peaceful coexistence is concerned, perhaps a bit of reciprocity is in order from the Islamic world, and perhaps that reciprocity needs to be insisted upon by the West with sharper emphasis and alacrity.

Those who immigrated to the USA in years gone by knew that they needed to assimilate to the Enlightenment/Protestant-ethos in America to at least some extent. Catholics who managed to flourish in this country while abiding by those principles, thriving more than the churches of Europe at the time, were even accused by the Vatican of the heresy of Americanism, but skillfully hewed to the same course just the same.

Switzerland itself may do a better job than most, but at least a few European nations have had great difficulty in assimilating their Muslim minorities, and much of that is their own fault, but at the same time Europe seems to be going through a great crisis of identity right now, and when a continent in which a dwindling population of even more dwindling faith encounters a growing minority population with a vibrant faith (which can also be quite militant at this point in history), I wonder if the Swiss can be forgiven for wanting to keep Switzerland looking like Switzerland. Europe is not beholden to commit cultural suicide.

Although Andrew Sullivan on his Daily Dish found this decision to be quite bigoted, I'm more inclined to agree with one of his commenters who wrote:
I have no problem with anyone wanting to practice their religion so long as it hurts no one else. And I also have no problem with the Swiss being unwilling to listen to “Allahu akbar, etc.” at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and nightfall. The Roman Catholic church down the street from me has a carillon that rings the hours. I like it; it’s pretty and it provides a useful function for the entire neighborhood. But, if it broadcast its priest intoning “Introibo ad altare Dei” every time Mass was said, I’d be on the phone to City Hall every time I heard it.
Sullivan responded by pointing out that none of the minarets that are currently in Switzerland are issuing calls to prayer. Yes. For now. Ultimately, though, what are they for? They are not merely for architectural decoration. I give some creedence to the argument that they are edifices of thriumphalism.

The problem of reciprocity is outlined very starkly in the December 7 issue of America in an article by David Pinault called Hidden Prayer in Yemen: Islam and the problem of religious intolerance (subscription only). Until we see some signs of a reforming spirit within Islam that allows for some reciprocity regarding the free exercise of other faiths in Islamic countries, I think decisions like those made by the Swiss can be defended to at least a certain extent, although anyone who still reads this blog can feel free to contradict me without recrimination. Some excerpts from Pinault's article, which described the necessarily furtive and underground practice of Christianity in Yemen.
Unfortunately, the plight of Christians in Yemen is not unique. In Iraq, Saudia Arabia and other countries in the Muslim world, freedom of worship is severely restricted, and the number of Christians has dwindled. The values of pluralism and diversity are dismissed in favor of a strict adherence to the rule of the Koran, which sees any visible Christian presence as an attempt at evangelization. Yemen is emblematic of an Islamic culture that fails to see the spiritual growth that can come from encounters with people of other faiths.

The government does not prohibit foreigners from private Christian worship, but authorities are intent on discouraging conversion from Islam. I heard reports of young Muslim men, apparently commissioned by the Yemeni government, posing as potential converts in an attempt to lure Christian foreigners into proselytizing. In one recent case, a Christian Ethiopian working in Sanaa as a day laborer gave an Arabic text of the New Testament to a Yemeni who feigned interest in the faith. The result: three months in jail followed by deportation.

Consequences can be far harsher for Yemenis who genuinely desire to convert. In a culture where religious identity is equated with loyalty to family, clan and nation, conversion from Islam is seen as treason, a threat to Yemen ’s communal identity—hence what one Muslim cleric described to me as al-khawf min al-tansir, “the fear of Christianization.” (Tansir comes from the root nasrani, “Nazarene.”) Muslims caught flirting with the “Nazarene” faith are routinely arrested, imprisoned and made to reaffirm their allegiance to Islam. Others suffer violence at the hands of their own
families—“the only way,” as one American resident told me, “in an honor/shame society for a father to erase the stain of shameful behavior on the part of his children.”

Violent hostility to religious minorities is a problem in other Islamic countries as well. In Iraq in recent years, terrorists have used death threats against indigenous Christians in Mosul and elsewhere in northern Iraq to extort payment of what is known as the jizyah. This is the discriminatory tax imposed on “People of the Book” — Jews and Christians living under Islamic rule — in accordance with Chapter 9, verse 29 of the Koran: “Fight against those who do not believe in Allah…from among the People of the Book, until they pay the jizyah and have been humiliated and brought low.”

Enforced during the height of Islamic political power in the days of the caliphate, collection of the tax was abandoned by secularizing governments of the modern Middle East. But some of today’s Islamist movements view the jizyah as a marker of the resurgence of Islam. For years, Paulos Faraj Rahho, archbishop of Mosul’s Chaldean Catholic community, had made jizyah payments to local militants on behalf of his diocese’s Christians. Finally, as the security situation in Iraq improved, he refused any further payments, a decision that led to his kidnapping and murder in 2008. Eventually a member of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia was convicted of the crime. Under such pressure, almost half of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country.

Analogous developments are occurring in Pakistan. In April 2009 Christian day laborers residing in an impoverished part of Karachi known as Khuda ki Basti found warnings chalked on the walls of their neighborhood: “The Taliban are coming.… Be prepared to pay jizyah or embrace Islam.” When the Christians registered their defiance by erasing the threats, ethnic Pashtuns living in Karachi attacked the neighborhood, killing an 11-year-old boy and injuring several men and women. The assailants torched homes and set fire to copies of the Bible...

Several years ago, in a conversation with Ali Abdullah Saleh, president of Yemen, Pope John Paul II petitioned for the construction of a church in Yemen’s capital. The president promised he would see to it. Nothing has come of the promise.

There are no churches in Saudi Arabia either, despite the presence of over one million foreign Christian workers and a personal plea from Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. Pope Benedict noted that in the 1990s the Italian government permitted the construction of a Saudi-financed mosque in Rome, a short distance from Vatican City. Yet so far Saudi Arabia’s leaders have refused to follow suit and recognize the right to freedom of worship in their own country. Anwar Ashiqi, a Saudi religious scholar, summarizes the government’s position:
“It would be possible to launch official negotiations to construct a church in Saudi Arabia only after the pope and all the Christian churches recognize the Prophet Muhammad.”

I raised this issue in a conversation in June with a Sunni imam in Yemen’s capital. An affable individual in his early 30s, this imam directs a mosque in Sanaa and is known as a hafiz (someone who has learned by heart the entire Koran). When I pointed out the disparity—mosques in Rome, no churches in Sanaa—he said this struck him as right. Islam, he stated, is
al-din al-niha’i (the final, definitive religion). But Christianity and Judaism, he said, were religions from the past, outdated and superseded. “They may be permitted to exist,” he continued, “but they shouldn’t be allowed to propagate.” A church in Sanaa might attract Yemeni Muslims, thereby facilitating al-tansir: the propagation of the Nazarene faith. Better, he said, to keep Yemen as nearly as possible 100 percent Muslim.

What this imam articulated was an attitude I encountered in all too many conversations in Sanaa: a resistance to religious pluralism. By pluralism I mean the notion that spiritual paths alternative to one’s own have value; that these alternatives have something to teach us, even as they challenge us by their difference; and that one’s religious identity and spiritual life are deepened by the self-reflection triggered in the encounter with diversity. Such encounters can take place only in settings where freedom of worship is allowed to flourish. In hindering the construction of Christian churches, countries like Yemen impoverish their own Islamic faith.


shera10 said...


The problem here in Europe, particularly Italy, isn’t the secular left, but the creepy xenophobic right. They are building a religion, a Christianity without God, and they want "substitute" the catholic Church.

Liam said...

I'm sorry, Jeff, I can't see the Swiss referendum as anything else than petty and odious racism. I appreciate very well the problem shadow of the Mormon Temple in Mass., but the problem of unsightly buildings or loud calls to prayer can be addressed in zoning laws.

We have to stop talking about "Islam" as if it was so monolithic. Why do Swiss Muslims have to be discriminated against because of what the government in Yemen does? What is the connection there? Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, why not take a look at its laws?

I am wary of this whole "us against them" attitude of approaching Islam. I know very tolerant Muslims and very intolerant Catholics, and I feel more at home with the former.

Jeff said...

Cristina & Liam,

Yes, I get what you are saying. The rural Swiss are afraid, and fear is at the root of almost all xenophobia.

What is to be done,then? What of the xenophobia that exists in even more extreme measure in locales such as Yemen and Saudia Arabia? Isn't their supersessionist view a cause for concern as well? The article was a recent entry in America magazine, it is not an emotional "Jihadwatch" kind of piece.

Several European countries have had had a very difficult time assimilating and making their Muslim immigrants feel part of their wider societies, hence, the riots like the ones we saw in France, and the young jihadists in Britain who embrace a more extreme form of Islam than their own parents ever did. Indonesia has had a more tolerant outlook in the past, that's certainly true, but oil-money-funded Wahhabism, largely coming out out of Saudi Arabia, has a far reach and has even made significant inroads in places as far away as Indonesia. Wahhabism pays for a lot of this construction and the ideology often comes with it.

I think the Catholic Church itself has done quite a bit to try to ease tensions with Islam. Even Benedict's 2006 remarks that resulted in a firestorm of controversy eventually led to a dialogue of sorts. Is it possible that this referendum, if approached anew and with fresh eyes and cooler heads, could do the same?

I too am wary of painting all Muslims with the same brush, but Islam has a real problem right now that it needs to deal with internally, and I just can't give them a complete pass.

I see the perfect validity in the points you both make. I'd just like to see the Islamic world (with it's cultural locus in Mecca)make broader attempts to come to terms with the enlightenment and with modernity as we've done. Or at least attempted to do at Vat II.

Liam said...

Well, I think we have to approach it as problems with Saudi Arabia, Yemen, etc., and not with Islam as a whole. Yes, many Muslims are still struggling with modernity. The thing is, we can't be the ones to tell them what to do or how to do it.

I actually think Islam in the West may be a great key to that transformation. Not so much in places like Switzerland, but in the US, where there is a lot of dynamic thinking going on. But there will be a problem if we stop every Muslim on the street and shout at them "CHOOSE SIDES NOW!" Like that group by the disgusting McCarthyite David Horowitz that actually went around campuses with petitions condemning "Islamo-fascism" and demanding that Muslim students sign them. That's the kind of thing that will drive people to identity crises and to extremism.

I really don't understand how you think this referendum will make Muslims deal with modernity. How can a law that institutionalizes discrimination make people feel positive about the institutions?

I hope I don't sound too aggressive Jeff, but the truth is this issue has made me pretty grumpy.

Jeff said...


That's perfectly OK, I understand how you feel. David Horowitz, yeah... What a transformation, I don't know what happened to that guy.

I think there are difficulties in dealing with problems like the ones we see in places like Saudi Arabia and Yemen on an adhoc basis and isolated to nation states. There is a diversity within Islam, but the Saudi heartland, as the origin of the faith and the custodian of the holy places has an outsized influence, a special responsibility, and is seen as a sort of center of the Ummah.

I don't know, I hear that there is a petition circulating among the Swiss to have the referendum reconsidered. Maybe incidents like this prompt people to discuss things honestly instead of sweeping them under the rug. In an unintended way, that happened after the Regensburg fiasco. Muslim clerics and leaders wrote an open letter to the pope and there was a meeting later on at the Vatican later on with dozens of Catholic and Islamic scholars.

Garpu said...

I'm kind of with Liam on this one, too. Any reform of Islam--if it needs it--has to come from within. It wouldn't be the place for Muslims to tell us what's wrong with Catholicism. it's really not our place to do the same to them. Plus in speaking with people living in Switzerland who've studied the bill, it really is an excuse for xenophobia.

Jeff said...

Hi Jen,

That's cool. Like I said, I realized I didn't have a particularly good reason.

Garpu said...

Eh, I think I would've sided more with you on it, had I not known a few people who actually had studied the bill (and are living in Switzerland.) It's a complicated situation over there. At once, I think Europe does a better job than we do about inclusiveness. On the other hand, they've got some really weird racial issues we've dealt with a bit better.

(Ironically one instance of such things always pops up in discussions of race in Doctor Who--it's really obvious that Europeans and Americans have very different understandings and assumptions.)

Jimmy Mac said...

Jeff: one comment.

Mormon temples are crowned with a statue of the angel Moroni, not Gabriel.

Jim McCrea

Jeff said...


Well, if Berlusconi had to get busted and bloodied up, at least we can be thankful for the sake of world peace that it was done with a statue of a cathedral instead of a minaret. ;)

Jimmy Mac,

Ha! Right you are! You know, I googled that, but I didn't read closely enough. I wound up like Teddy Kennedy who made a reference to Gabriel in connection with that building and had to be corrected by Orrin Hatch:

“I had to inform Teddy that it was actually the Angel Moroni, a prominent figure in the LDS faith.”