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.


  1. Michael, you really DO know better…
    Yes I hate Islam with every fibre of my being.
    I hate it for the violence it has brought to the world. I hate it for the way it imposes its laws and requirements on non muslims. I hate it for its intolerance of other religions and opinions. I hate it for its treatment of women. I hate it for its treatment of gay people. I hate it for its public executions that rob children of their childhoods. I hate it for the way it continues to make its own people bomb and cut each other to pieces … and yet I pray daily for the people it enslaves to become enlightened and freed because I DO NOT hate them.
    So how can you even suggest I hate you and others for not hating it?
    You have not thought enough.
    Your friend (really!) in Israel.

  2. Sorry! I might have got somewhat tied up in my own hyperbole there. There is certainly a difference between hating the thing and hating the people. The problem is when it becomes such a close run thing that it is hard to tell the difference.

    "I am an atheist from a Muslim background. My family are practising Muslims and although the religion denies me freedom of belief, it is my duty to defend its right to exist.

    Second, there is no argument about the Saudi, the anti-semitism of Iran, the homophobia of the Vatican or the militarism of the US, the oppression of women in Pakistan or the apartheid politics of the state of Israel. These all require comment and action. Third, building global citizenship requires starting somewhere -- our focus is equally on local hate crimes against lesbians, immigrants and HIV positive people. These are tackled by separate movements. A broad coalition unifying all of us against hate crimes is indispensable to addressing violations everywhere.

    To counter-pose Switzerland to Saudi Arabia is to fall into the trap of the the Dark Ages and the Crusades. We act from the position that all people have a right to an identity and to express it with dignity.


  3. Part of the above comment comes from a discussion on the matter on Zackie Achmat's facebook page

  4. I agree it becomes a very close run thing and we must NEVER cross the line. I accept Zackie’s observations to a point. Israel. Apartheid. You see, I won’t use the two words in same sentence - nor should anyone before they have done a Google search of “Operation Moses”. They’re black, they’re Jews, they’re our family. We went to fetch them to bring them home and were going back to fetch the rest soon. Regarding Arab citizens of the State of Israel: I invite you to Israel. On any day of your choosing, I will take you to any of our public health care and educational facilities and show you equal treatment for all. You will see for yourself that they have a freer lifestyle and a higher standard of living here than that of any non-ruling-class Muslims anywhere in the Muslim world. That foul label does not stick here.

    Your friend in Israel.