Swiss Shock:  Minaret Rejection and European Values – Islam and tolerant neutrality

The recent Swiss determination to ban the erection of minarets was not an expression of united concern for cityscape aesthetics, architectural purity, or simple building code height restrictions. Along with the rest of Western Europe, there are plenty of high-rise edifices; some pleasing to the eye; some not so. Aesthetically disruptive and architecturally contentious buildings are not unknown. Switzerland, for long a beacon of toleration and neutrality when the rest of Europe was inclined to self-flagellate with partisan divides and moments of intense intolerance, has enacted its own prejudicial 'Nein!' to matters Islamic. In this respect it has now joined the rest of Europe in the fin de siècle that has been the opening decade of the 21st century: the challenge of Muslim presence to European identity and values.The secular dream of religious neutrality, if not invisibility, in an open, pluralist, and tolerant European society – religions, like children, should be seen (if at all) and certainly not heard – has all but faded.

The ubiquity of Islam within Europe today, in contrast with the presence of many other religious identities, both challenges the status quo and has provoked varying Christian reactions from fundamentalist forms of anti-Islamic sentiments to the calling for Europe to pay renewed attention to its own Christian heritage and values. In an era when interfaith relations and allied co-operative engagements are on the rise, and at the same time resurgent religion seems to be breeding ever-hardening mutual exclusions, the rejection of a symbol of the presence of one faith – in this case Islamic – by a society that is otherwise predominantly secular, pluralist, and of Christian heritage, poses significant concerns for interfaith détente and intercultural relations within the European context, as well as beyond. The underlying challenge of the Swiss decision is the question: Whither the modern ideal of tolerant neutrality?


Douglas Pratt (opens in a new window) is a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Waikato, NZ and the NZ Associate of the UNESCO Chair in Intercultural and Interreligious Relations – Asia Pacific (Monash University, Melbourne, Australia). He is also an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow in the School of Social and Political Inquiry where he has research links to the Global Terrorism Research Centre and the Centre for Islam in the Modern World. He is an Associate of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and the Book Review editor of the international Routledge journal Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations of the University of Birmingham, UK. Douglas was recently elected Vice-President of the Australian Association for the Study of Religion  (opens in a new window) (AASR). He has been a consultant to the Australian Federal Government and a guest presenter to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and FBI Leadership in Counter-Terrorism – Pacific program. Recent publications include Civilisational Dialogue and the Philosophy of Religion (University of Malaya, 2009), The Challenge of Islam: Encounters in Interfaith Dialogue (Ashgate, 2005) and the co-authored Religious Diversity in Southeast Asia and the Pacific: National Case Studies (Springer Academic Publishers, 2010).

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