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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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.