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?

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Why the past 12 months have been the worst of my lifetime

We desperately need a return to calm and moderation.

Twitter is a weird phenomenon: a deeply selective, wholly unreliable Survation or YouGov in your pocket, with an even bigger margin for error. I’ve been tweeting for a year now, but I’m still useless at guessing what is likely to attract attention; so I was taken completely by surprise at the end of last week when a comment I jotted down received thousands of Likes and retweets. “It’s a year since Jo Cox was murdered,” I wrote: “the worst year for Britain in my lifetime. We badly need a return to Jo’s concept of moderation now.”

Fairly anodyne, you would have thought, but it seems to have touched a nerve. Clearly many other people feel that the past year, with its violence and disasters and wholesale political instability, has been a bad one. For days afterwards, my phone kept buzzing as more people retweeted it. There were, as always, a few contrarians who objected that other years since 1944 must have been worse; some said “much worse”. But that isn’t really true.

After D-Day, we knew the war was going to be won. Despite the bombs, the country was proud of itself and pulling together, and the likes of my father were hoping for a better world as soon as it was finished. The year of the Suez crisis, 1956, was pretty bad, but Anthony Eden was gone directly, and Harold Macmillan’s phoney self-confidence convinced people that things would be all right – and anyway the economy was growing impressively.

The period of the Heath government had awful moments: 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday and IRA attacks, was especially bad. Yet there was nothing like the appalling Grenfell Tower fire to divide the nation. And 1974 was humiliating for the government, but our membership of the European Economic Community offered a certain stability. We had a different, more forelock-tugging relationship with our political leaders then. The news bulletins used to talk reverently of “the prime minister, Mr Wilson”; now they just say “Theresa May”.

Today we have a prime minister who is held to have been mortally wounded by a series of personal failures and miscalculations; a governing party that has been self-harming for years over the question of ­Europe; an opposition that, until just recently, was regarded as hopelessly incompetent and naive; an economy that could be damaged by an ill-judged Brexit agreement; and a new vulnerability to terrorism, in which one atrocity quickly overlays the memory of the last.

There’s a newly hysterical tone in British society, which had always seemed so reassuringly reliable and sensible. The crowd that stormed Kensington Town Hall as though it were the Bastille or the Winter Palace mistook a man in a suit for a Tory councillor and beat him up. It transpired that he was an outside contractor who had spent much of the week helping the Grenfell Tower victims.

Above all, what was until recently the world’s fifth-largest economy has suddenly found itself on the edge of a trapdoor in the dark. “Back to the Thirties”, some people are saying. “Venezuela”, say others. Even Brexiteers who feel liberated and excited at the prospect of getting out of the EU can’t know if it’s going to work. Friends of mine who voted Leave because they were fed up with David Cameron or thought things needed a shake-up now show a degree of buyer’s remorse. Perhaps, like Boris Johnson in the BBC2 drama Theresa vs Boris, they thought the country was so stable that nothing bad would actually happen.

We’ve entered a period of sudden, neurotic mood swings. The opinion polls, unable to cope, tell us at one moment that Jeremy Corbyn is regarded as dangerous and useless, and at the next that a growing number of people see him as the national saviour. The Prime Minister’s “safe pair of hands” are now deemed too shaky to carry the country’s china. Ukip polled over 10 per cent in 450 seats in 2015, and in only two seats in 2017.

If any further evidence of neuroticism is needed, there is the longing that people have to be enfolded in the arms of a comforting authority figure. For some, it was the Queen, calming everyone down with a message of unity, or Prince William, hugging a grieving woman after the Grenfell Tower fire. For others, it was Corbyn doing the right human things while Theresa May walked past the tower ruins awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

It feels like being back in 1997, with the huge crowds in the Mall or outside Kensington Palace demanding to be comforted after the death of Diana. Then, the Queen was blamed for not being the mother figure we seemed, disturbingly, to want. Tony Blair had the right words at that time, and no doubt he would have had the right words after Grenfell Tower. But is it merely words and gestures we need?

It’s a bad sign when countries feel that they need an individual to sort them out. It’s because of its system, based on openness, inclusiveness and the rule of law, that Britain has grown strong and wealthy. Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in June 2015: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She was murdered by a fanatic who screamed, “This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!” The year that those words ushered in has indeed been the worst in my lifetime. The government slogan “Keep calm and carry on” was invented in 1939, when all-out German bombing seemed imminent. It is easy to lampoon but when it was rediscovered a few years ago it became popular, because it spoke directly to our national consciousness. We’ve never had more need of calmness than now.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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