Thursday, December 3, 2009
The Minaret, the Swiss and the question of tolerance
My memories of working on a pig farm, as a 19 year old, near a village called Chesierès in Switzerland are mostly pleasant. I needed to work on the pig farm, because I had started hitching around Europe with the princely sum of £50 in my pocket. The money really didn’t last long – even then, and as I got deliciously thinner and thinner, living on a diet of powdered soup and demi baguette, I needed to seriously consider my options. One of them was actual work – which hadn’t really crossed my mind previously.
So, I hitched to this very beautiful place, in the Alps and found work as a muck-raker on a pig farm. You get used to it after a while. You even get on a first name basis with some of the sows. The deal was that I didn’t actually get paid – that somehow got lost in translation – but I did get a place to stay and food.
The food was good – pasta in various forms with cheese, as I remember it. The place to stay was the barn, which stank of cat wee and had lots of straw in it. I noticed, fairly quickly, that I was not the only person working in this Swiss slave galley – there were students from all over the world. We were young. We were horny. We were reckless and we were happy.
And that was my experience of Switzerland, besides brief forays into to Basel and Geneva, which I simply could not afford – whatever I did! But even with that, I have a very clear picture in my head of what Switzerland looks like. It has very imposing, very protestant churches in Geneva, with nothing of any interest inside them. It includes red geranium-filled window-boxes and it includes shop windows filled with chocolates. And the picture does not have Minarets in it.
Now, I wonder – is that a good or a bad thing? A new found friend, who is actually an old school friend that I have recently re-found on Facebook (you know how this happens) lives in Israel. He is (how can I put this mildly?) anti-Islamic. I think, from the little I have read, it would be not untrue to say that he hates Islam with every fibre of his being. I would venture to say that it is likely that he hates everyone who doesn’t hate Islam! It is, as I say, something fairly strong.
But his religion is, and always has been, a non-proselytizing one. Judaism has never sought converts. That has been both its strength and its biggest weakness. Its strength, because it has maintained a kind of inner coherence and integrity through the ages – and a fairly strong ethical centre. But its weakness, because it has, to a large extent become focused on and confined to a tiny, disputed, piece of land. It has no room to breathe. Its members who live elsewhere have usually built fairly discrete Temples with architecture not dissimilar to that around them. Because of the ban on art, their presence (certainly amongst the Hasidim) is noticed largely because of their peculiar Eurocentric (and of a particular period to boot) dress and untamed sideburns. But they have always preferred to keep to themselves.
Islam and Christianity, on the other hand, are the exact opposite. They have, in the past and for both of them also in the present, shown no hesitation in expansion. In Empire building. In rampant domination. Christianity has simply adopted prevailing culture where it has encountered a clash, baptised it and then usurped it. Where it met with other forms of resistance, it has shown no hesitation in killing and subjecting everything in its path until it held sway and established itself as primary. And the way in which it did that was by altering the skyline.
And Islam seems to have the same kind of appetite for cultural imperialism, though, I would argue, not quite as virulently as Christianity – yet.
The rapprochement which presently exists between Judaism and Christianity is a fairly recent phenomenon. In the Gospels themselves, and Matthew’s Gospel in particular – the Jews are, pretty much, the enemy. And it has taken many a century to get beyond the “Christ killer” instinct of the early church. And now, the tactical alliance between Zionism (as distinct from Judaism) and right-wing American Christianity (read American dominance in world politics) is much more than mutual respect for divergent views. It is fundamentally a political alliance.
So, I find myself wondering what the real basis for the recent government objection to a Minaret in Switzerland is. Is it cultural? Architectural? Or is there, somewhere in the back of Swiss consciousness, a memory of just how quickly things can change and how other world orders can easily come to dominance? The problem is not anywhere else, but in the proselytizing nature of the religions themselves. I think, like Chinese manufacturing, it is an unstoppable reality.