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Minaret and swastika

In the wake of the Swiss minaret ban, Gustav Seibt examines the pitfalls of western tolerance

The citizens of Switzerland who voted to outlaw the construction of minarets in a constitutional referendum, had to face outrage and ridicule. But not exclusively; they also had a few enlightened defenders, who used arguments other than xenophobic prejudice or unspecific protectiveness towards their homeland. These defenders of the west and its way of life deserve to be heard, because their thoughts touch on the basic principles of tolerance, which Europe developed so painstakingly after centuries of religious wars.

Anne Applebaum, a leading American historian whom we have to thank for a seminal book on the Soviet gulag, does not even deny, in an article for the Washington Post from December 8, that the Swiss referendum might seem "grotesquely unfair" to "hundreds of thousands of well-integrated Muslims", but she does arrive at the following conclusion: "I have no doubt that the Swiss voted in favor primarily because they don't have much Islamic extremism - and they don't want any." A peculiar figure of thought: you are actually pretty well integrated, but just in case you – or a few of you – come up with any stupid ideas, we'd better put some restrictions on your religious freedom.

This brings back unpleasant memories of sympathiser-baiting in the days of radical left-wing terrorism in Europe. In the seventies this threatened serious damage to the constitutional state which, it should be said, would have been very much in the interests of its misguided enemies.

The women's rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes a similar case, though at greater length, in the Christian Science Monitor on December 5. The minaret, the star and the crescent moon, she says, are symbols of a totalitarian political movement, like the swastika or the hammer and sickle. Islam, she says, is not restricted to beliefs about birth and death and the afterlife; it is an all-encompassing way of life that makes political demands on its followers. Islamism, in other words, jihad, honour killings, genital mutilation, and arranged marriages. It was against this, according to Hirsi Ali, that an otherwise left-leaning class of Swiss workers and ordinary people defended their free lifestyle – in contrast to the cosmopolitan, dialogue-loving diplomatic, economic and media leaders.

Henryk M. Broder used the same line of argument on November 30, in an immediate response to the Swiss vote on the website "Die Achse des Guten" (and here in Die Welt). From now on, Broder argues, we should only do business on a tit-for-tat basis. "If Bonn can have a King Fahd Academy, which is not regulated by the schools supervisory board, it must be possible to have an Evangelical or Catholic school in Riad or Jedda, or an academy for atheist theory and praxis. If Iranian women can parade through Munich in the hijab, European women should be able to walk through Tehran or Isfahan in the clothes of their choice, without being groped by the lecherous hands of the moral police."

If, according to this principle, hallowed western constitutional principles – stipulated, for example, in the "First Amendment of the United States Constitution", which expressly prohibit state legislation on religious questions – are sacrificed, then we really have regressed to a pre-1648 world, when entire confessions made each other collectively liable, taking turns to persecute, hunt or murder one other. We are a lot closer to this world today than most secular citizens of the west would like to believe. Until 1870, for example, within the realm of the church state, it was forbidden to build a single Evangelical church (only non-public observance of the Evangelical faith was tolerated). Did that stop the Prussian king Frederic the Great from building his new Catholic subjects a magnificent Catholic cathedral just a stone's throw from the Berlin Stadtschloss? Of course not.

Well 18th century Catholicism was relatively tame, but not tame enough to prevent the Catholic establishment from burning a witch every now and then. And even in Maria Theresia's day, a Catholic power like Austria had an official ban on learning English due to the numerous Enlightenment texts that were written it. Of course Catholicism remained a faith that placed strict demands on its followers' way of life, including basic political notions. By contrast, Bismark's freshly united empire of 1871 felt the need to defend itself with "pulpit paragraphs" that forbade the clergy to take any form of political position and was mainly used in the empire against Polish and Rhinish clerics. In the Third Reich it was a weapon against priests who opposed the regime. It was not abandoned in the BRD until 1953.

The idea of religious tolerance, which has developed in Europe since the 17th century, did not develop under today's more ideologically relaxed circumstances. It was a response to the competition between the various claims to the truth, with their all-encompassing (to avoid the word totalitarian) traits, which allowed them to exist side by side. The hostile feelings which Islam awakens today, even in its least extreme forms, probably also arise because we are reminded of our own past, when people in Europe had equally strong beliefs and lived by them, as many Muslims do today.

This adds an asymmetry to the balance of tolerance, which can only be overridden by a trick of the tongue that equates Islam and Islamism and pronounces Islam a third wave of totalitarianism after Communism and Nazism. European tolerance was not initially secured in the name of Enlightenment and enlightened people, but as a way to help Catholics and Protestants live together, and later, Jews. Not until a second stage did religious tolerance develop into the further-reaching freedoms of Kant's "public use of reason", which went on to become the foundation of the modern constitutional state. Our democratic freedoms are immediately descended from religious freedom, which is why even the slightest restrictions, as Navid Kermani so rightly said, are taboo-breaking.

Because the point about the Swiss referendum is not that not every town in the Alps should have the right to negotiate with their Islamic communities about building mosques that are compatible with history and landscape; the point is about constitutionally banning minarets in a modern, secular state. But the idea that we should attune our religious freedoms to the situation in Riad is ludicrous.

The limits of tolerance in western constitutional states were set a long time ago. They end where tolerance becomes impossible, in the face of coercion or violence of any form including, of course, politically totalitarian aspirations. But this does not mean that religious communities have to be democratic to the core (the Catholic Church is not, even today) as long as they permit the right to leave. And this must be guaranteed by the constitutional state. The same naturally goes for all imperatives that oppress and infringe upon the rights of women, against which Hirsi Ali is so rightly fighting. And of course a western state community such as the European Union is allowed to require every Islamic country that wants to join its ranks, comprehensively to implement its enlightened Euro-American constitutional norms.

But to argue like Applebaum, Broder and Hirsi Ali is to resort to the sort of fundamentalist logic which "the west" (to use an expression that is back in fashion again) left behind it after many painful experiences, in historical terms, an amazingly short time ago. That 11 September 2001, indeed Islamic terrorism in general, now threatens to trigger relapses here at home, is one of many tragic consequences. The right answer would be to take pride in a constitution that upholds two-way tolerance, instead of only in our direction. "We will break them with our tolerance," one wise citizen said, shortly after September 11. Otherwise, they will break us with their intolerance.


Gustav Seibt, born in 1959, studied literature and history. He was editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has written for Die Zeit and currently writes for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. His most recent book "Goethe und Napoleon" deals with the historical meeting of these two men in 1808. C.H.Beck Verlag (2008)

This article orginally appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 14 December, 2009

Translation: lp

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