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Minaret in a minor

india Updated: Dec 05, 2009 22:24 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times
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Over the last eight years or so, I’ve been reading commentaries explaining how Islamic fundamentalists who turn into killers are created. Usually, these have been sympathetic formulations on the lines of ‘What leads someone to hate the West so much?’ The reasons cited are Western arrogance and global injustice meted out to Muslims as a community.

This is the portrayal of the homicidal-suicidal Islamic fundamentalist as an infidel-hating version of Martin Scorcese’s mohawk-wearing anti-hero in Taxi Driver who wants to “rid the streets of New York of scum” and it’s not an incorrect portrayal. These commentaries explain an extremist ideology in pop-psychiatric terms — which, if you come to think about it, is the only rational way to comprehend it.

But in all these years of lash, backlash and counter-backlash between Islamic fundamentalists and anti-Islamic fundamentalists — both of whom have shown their sheer appetite for inflicting ‘collateral damage’ — I’m yet to come across a similar, sympathetic attempt to understand ‘What leads someone to hate Islam so much?’ The way you don’t have to be an Islamic terrorist to try and understand what makes someone kill in the name of Prophet Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him), you don’t have to be an Islamophobe to try and understand what makes someone despise a religion and its adherents in the name of Liberalism (Peace Be Upon It). So today I’m going to give it a shot.

I bring this up after learning about the results of a referendum conducted in Switzerland last week. On November 29, 57.5 per cent of voters (1,534,054 Swiss nationals) demanded a ban on minarets in Switzerland. This is a country with four minarets and about 400,000 Muslims (around 5 per cent of the total population) mostly comprising Bosnian and Turkish immigrants and with no history of ranting mullahs or tensions over headscarves. So why all this ruckus about, not burqas, not ritualistic slaughter of animals, not loony mullahs hardselling jihad, but minarets?

Which is where I don the costume of an ordinary, liberal Swiss bloke who sees a minaret and has the following images flash before his eyes: the decapitation of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002; the murder of the anti-Islam Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh in 2004; the Madrid and London bombings in 2004 and 2005; the baying for blood across the Muslim world when a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad was published in a Danish newspaper in 2005; and, oh, two towers that were the West’s version of a pair of giant minarets crashing down after being pummelled by two airplanes in 2001.

For citizens of Geneva or Zurich or other Swiss cities and towns — who consciously or unconsciously defend the European Enlightenment and its non-negotiable values — the minaret is as much a symbol of Islamic fundamentalism as a dancefloor in a nightclub is a symbol of Western(ised) promiscuity for the orthodox Muslim.

But the nervous-about-Islam Swiss don’t want their fear of minarets to be seen in religious terms. That would be so irrational, illiberal and un-European. Officially, the referendum had its origins not in concerns about non-assimilated, bearded foreigners who treat women from their community as chattel overrunning the Swiss landscape, but from local complaints in 2005 in Wangen bei Olten against the construction of a 6-metre-high minaret on the roof of the town’s Islamic community centre as it would flout municipal regulations. That sounds so much more rational. But they really oppose these symbols of a religious law whose very nature is seen by many Muslims to override the secular law of the land if the two come into conflict.

While I know much of the Swiss discomfort with Islam — oops, minarets — stems from distressing ‘Eurabia’ scenarios, I do understand where Switzerland’s minaret-phobes are coming from: the fear of a citizenry being allowed to live in one nation according to opposing (distinct from merely separate) values and a different law. All in the name of ‘multi-culturalism’, Europe’s version of what we here call ‘secularism’.