Minarets and Confusion: Europe's Identity Crisis

By Joe Wood

Recent news story: a religious minority seeks to construct a building to conform with its faith and architectural traditions. The majority, of a different faith, denies permission. Sounds like Switzerland? In fact, this story comes from the other side of the Atlantic. Amish residents of Morristown, New York, claim that the local building code violates their beliefs by requiring them to install smoke detectors in their homes, submit engineering plans, and obtain building permits. Eleven Amish men have been charged with violating the code since 2006, and the Amish say they will have to leave if they lose their fight. Their lawyer decried Morristown's "crusade against the Amish." Arbitration failed to resolve the question earlier this month, and litigation will ensue. (contined below)

The Amish case highlights the tension between religious and civil authorities that still produces heated debate and frequent lawsuits in the United States. The founding myth of America is rooted in religious freedom, but the reality has been far more complex: the original pilgrims tolerated no religious dissent, Catholic Mass was illegal in Maryland (originally a Catholic colony) for most of the 18th century, Jews and Catholics were prohibited from holding public office in some places as late as the latter part of the 19th century. The history of the efforts of American courts to regulate religious-civil tension has reflected (and often produced) extraordinary confusion.

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But the confusion in the United States is usually limited to litigation, letter-writing campaigns, and sharp rhetoric. While the questions involved are real and very dear to those on both sides, the disputes generally are not thought to go to the core of American identity. In Europe, a different kind of confusion seems to prevail.

In early December, Switzerland's citizens voted, with a comfortable 57% majority, to ban the building of new minarets (Switzerland, with a total population of 7.7 million, is home to 400.000 Muslims - mostly from the Balkans and Turkey - and four minarets). The Swiss minaret referendum has been interpreted as both a statement in response to (and fear of) increased Muslim presence in Europe, and a response to the possible growth of a political Islam whose values are incompatible with the West. Both interpretations have merit as explanations of the Swiss vote.

Architecture is central to any culture, from Muslims to Amish to Europeans. As such, architectural symbols both shape and convey a sense of identity and place. French President Nicolas Sarkozy wrote in The Guardian,

"The Swiss vote has nothing to do with religious freedom or freedom of conscience. No one, in Switzerland or anywhere else, questions these fundamental freedoms. Europeans are welcoming and tolerant: it is in their nature and culture. But they do not want their way of life to be undermined, and the feeling that one's identity is being lost can cause deep unhappiness. The more open the world - the greater the traffic of ideas, people, capital and goods - the more we need anchors and benchmarks, and the more we need to feel that we are not alone. National identity is the antidote to tribalism and sectarianism."

Concern in Switzerland about identity suggests not just a reaction to a foreign presence, but a lack of confidence in the continuing strength of Switzerland's own identity. The cross on the Swiss flag, originally worn by Christian soldiers, is no longer thought of as an actively Christian symbol. The Swiss are not alone; polling indicates that the populations of other West European countries would also reject minarets given the opportunity. As Christopher Caldwell concludes in his recent study of Islam in Europe, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, when a minority with strong cultural and religious beliefs confronts a majority with weaker beliefs and sense of identity, the minority is likely to have a greater influence than simple numbers would predict. Europeans seem to feel this, but they are also unsure how to react. Many who denounced the minaret ban had also supported the European Court of Human Rights decision earlier in November to ban crucifixes in Italian schools, a decision condemned across the Italian political spectrum for its alleged assault on national identity.

Concern for the preservation of a vague but important sense of identity is linked to concerns about the influence of "political Islam." The radicalization of young Muslims in Europe, terrorist plots both successful and foiled, calls for the application of sharia law, and foreign funding of mosque construction all produce a fear that some Muslims have a political agenda that would change European society dramatically. The minaret, rightly or wrongly, is seen as a forceful symbol of this political Islam.

The United States has two important advantages over Europe in dealing with religious symbols: the absence of a history of national wars associated with religious divisions, and a strong ability to integrate immigrants. Until European nations find a confident sense of identity that grows beyond much of their history and learn to better integrate the immigrants they need for their economies, European confusion on religious symbols will only increase.

Joe Wood is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC.

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