Europe’s problem with Islam

The Swiss vote illuminates a phobia many just don’t admit

Switzerland voted to ban the construction of any new minarets yesterday, showing that it remains as lovably liberal as ever. This was the country that had to be forced into returning billions, plundered by the Nazis, to the descendants of Jewish families (the case was settled only nine years ago).

It seems remarkable that the good burghers of Switzerland, 57 per cent of whom voted for the proposal in their referendum, should take so vehemently against these thin, elegant turrets that adorn mosques around the world. I've always found them rather beautiful, and in any case, at present, there are only four mosques with minarets in the whole of the country. The call to prayer is already not allowed. What's the beef? Well, according to Walter Wobman of the Swiss People's Party (SVP), "The minaret is the power symbol of political Islam and sharia law . . . We just want to stop further Islamisation in Switzerland."

The SVP and its allies ran a charming campaign, with posters of an almost completely veiled woman in front of minarets arrayed like missiles ready for launch. Such fears of an advance into central Europe by eastern, Turkic hordes might have been justified in the aftermath of the Siege of Vienna, when an Ottoman army assailed the capital of the Habsburg empire for two months. But given that the sultan's forces were successfully and finally repulsed in 1683, over three centuries ago, one might have thought that the odd new minaret would not be viewed as quite such a threat today.

The situation is made more complex, however, by the proposal's also receiving vocal support from secularists and feminists who view minarets as "male power symbols", indicative of what they perceive as a Muslim tendency to oppress women.

Although the Swiss are already attracting odium over the referendum, and rightly so, this aspect of the result shows that it is not just right-wingers who are uneasy about aspects of Islam in Europe: one thinks of Jack Straw's comments about veiled women coming to visit his constituency surgeries. And, in a way, this is to be welcomed. I say this because although I wish so many people did not feel such worry, it is better to be open about it. I think many women, feminists of both sexes, and those on the left in Britain hesitate to be so when it comes to this issue. But fears that are not articulated cannot readily be addressed.

For centuries -- ever since the Enlightenment, perhaps -- one of the great cultural conflicts in Europe has been over religion and secularism, an obvious example of which was the long history of anticlericalism in France. Not just any religion, though. Both sides in this argument accepted that it was about Christianity and its role in the state.

The widespread attitude towards Judaism throughout the continent made it clear that faith was excluded from the debate. The French left, for instance, was initially complicit in the republic's most notorious incident of peacetime anti-Semitism, the Dreyfus affair. And around the same time, on a somewhat lighter note, the British prime minister Lord Rosebery still felt able to bid his Rothschild relatives go to bed with the words, "To your tents, O Israel!"

In the same way today, what all this is really about is whether Islam is compatible with a "definitive" European culture. And it is as well to admit that it is not just right-wing xenophobes, but also left-wing secularists, who are among the naysayers. I put that word, definitive, in inverted commas because the question of what a culture is, and what it can accommodate, has been explored in numerous countries (many of which have not hesitated to reach quite exclusive conclusions), but also in a highly controversial book published in 1970.

In The Malay Dilemma, the former Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad argued that various factors influence what becomes accepted as the "definitive" culture of a country: who formed the first effective government representing a settled majority (which is why no one seriously suggests that the United States and Australia are occupied territories that should be returned to their indigenous peoples); language; religion; and symbols of nationhood, such as the constitution and the flag.

The consequences of this, he wrote, were that:

It is the definitive Australians who decide when the newcomer can call himself Australian . . . But his rights and those of his offspring as Australians do not extend to insisting that the definition of what is an Australian should be changed so that the language, customs and traditions conform to those of his country of origin. An Australian of Russian origin may not insist that because he has as much right as any other Australians to Australia, the Russian language and customs should become the language and customs of Australia. An Australian Chinese may not ask that the Chinese language and culture be accepted as the language and culture of Australia.

The Malay Dilemma also contains many questionable and highly prejudiced assertions about racial characteristics and origins. Leaving all that aside, however, it appears to me that this element of the analysis is highly relevant to this particular debate. Today's Europe is still founded on 19th-century notions of the nation state very much constituted in keeping with the factors Dr Mahathir enumerated. If anyone ventures otherwise, I would point to the recent separation of the Czech and Slovak states and the formation of new ones in the former Yugoslavia. Beyond that, and unifying the continent (both inside and outside the EU), is a broader sense of European identity. If we are truthful, many on both the right and the left do not feel that Islam is, or even can be, a part of that. This view has been expressed starkly in the past by the new EU president, Herman van Rompuy:

Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be part of Europe. An expansion of the EU to include Turkey cannot be considered as just another expansion as in the past. The universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigour with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey.

A rather gentler way of saying something slightly different, but in important ways also the same, was put to me when I interviewed the philosopher A C Grayling:

I think it's up to people who feel that they've got to grow a beard, or wear the hijab, to think very seriously about how they're going to relate to something which, after all, pre-exists them. It's part of the very fabric of the way that a whole people is trying to organise itself.

Although there is plenty more to say, I'm going to come to a close now, as this is already very long for a blog posting (thank you for your patience if you've kept with me this far). As my colleague Mehdi Hasan posted earlier, Britain generally takes a much more tolerant and culturally inclusive approach, and I hope regular readers know what my views are on this. But the Swiss vote illuminates a very significant difference between the UK and Europe.

To me it also poses another, larger question about identity. Do you wish to be a true internationalist, a citizen of the world? Or would you rather be a Little European, clinging exclusively to your own ethnicity, religion and culture, and reacting defensively and suspiciously to people of different races and creeds, even though they may be your fellow citizens, born in the same land?

I'm afraid that the Little Europeans have far more support than we normally wish to admit, even in Britain. For it is part of the paradox of western liberalism that its pluralism extends only so far, and that it is essentially intolerant of anything that does not stem from its own "definitive" culture.

If you think I'm wrong, then can you please tell me this: what really is so scary about a few minarets?

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Getty
Show Hide image

Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

0800 7318496