'You're tired of talking about this, aren't you?" It's been several months since the Swiss shocked Europe by passing a constitutional amendment to ban the building of minarets. Yet again, issues related to Muslims have revealed the ugly side of Europe. Frankly, it's getting tiring pointing it out. But it took on a new resonance when the US state department, in its latest collection of human rights reports, drew attention to this phenomenon sweeping Europe. That the ban took place in Switzerland was also remarkable; the far-right has not been able to gain much of a following there. But they led the discussion for all of Swiss society in the run-up to the vote and that sets a dangerous precedent.
One attempt to deal with the issue is a recent initiative called "Our Shared Europe" sponsored by the British Council. The initiative seeks to draw attention to the contributions that Muslims have made to Europe so that we can have a healthier conversation about what happens tomorrow. As an academic who researches Muslim European communities, I have been asked to discuss the minarets ban with politicians and academics. At one of those events, a famous radio personality asked me about the headscarf issue in Europe. At that point, I almost threw my hands up in exasperation. "You're tired of talking about this, aren't you?" she noted.
It's not that these issues do not have importance anymore - they clearly do, which is why I went to Switzerland. The frustration is that we do not seem to be going anywhere in the discussion. We constantly ask the same questions of the same people - and we seem to be wholly unwilling to accept that maybe, just maybe, we should be asking other people. God forbid, but maybe we should even (gasp) consider asking Muslims why they believe what they do.
A few examples should make my exasperation a bit clearer. There have been studies about the motives of those who voted for the ban, revealing a number of reasons. Two of them were: "Muslims do not abide by Swiss law" and "the ban sends a signal against the spread of Islam in Switzerland". The assumptions in those two things are astounding. "Muslims do not abide by Swiss law"? Were there any Muslims in Switzerland who stated they were not obliged to abide by Swiss law? I could not find any on my trip. They must be hiding in those four minarets that actually exist in Switzerland. Maybe that's why people wanted to ban new construction: Muslims probably needed the additional space. After all, you can't "spread Islam in Switzerland" without having a base, and those minarets give you a good view of the battlefield, right?
Perhaps I'm being a bit flippant about this, but I think there is some justification to poke holes in these claims. The main reason being that we did not bother to ask Muslims themselves what they thought about these issues. In the run-up to the vote, Muslims were not actors in the discussion at all; they were just subjects. That core value of democracy - being able to define yourself - was taken away. The irony was, it was done through the democratic tool of the ballot box.
That's a mistake we see across Europe. And it's getting worse. Take the headscarf issue, for example - an issue that has been done to death already. The assumption is always that Muslim women who wear it are oppressed, or are wearing it as a political statement. I often ask commentators whether they have bothered to ask these women why they wear the scarf. The answer is often a dismissive "no". Why? Don't they think Muslim women are capable of answering?
On one occasion, a commentator replied, "Yes, I asked." Finally, some progress? No, because he continued: "They say they wear it because of God. That it is not a political statement at all." Ah! So that's why they wear it, then? "No!" No? "No! That's what they think is the reason. But actually, they're wrong - it is a political statement, they just don't know it." It's astonishing to think that in the 21st century, with all our talk about the rights of the individual and the Enlightenment, we can still entertain comments like this. That commentator had such a poor opinion of the intellects of Muslim women who wear headscarves that he felt he knew what she meant better than she did herself.
Take another example: Muammer Qadafi's call to jihad against Switzerland. Many people asked: "Why do Swiss Muslims not reject this?" As though they are obliged to respond to any Muslim in the world who says anything. But the irony was that they did reject the call. The question was not "Where is their voice?", because they spoke loudly in protest. The real question should be, "Why are we not listening?"
These are serious points, and yet, we seem satisfied with just talking in circles around these issues. Nevertheless, there is good reason to be optimistic about the future. The minarets ban was such a shock to the system in Switzerland that it reminded many that the tolerance that so defines the country cannot be taken for granted. As a result of that, there are new civil society movements reviving the public space in a meaningful way. The British Council's "Our Shared Europe" is an attempt to do exactly that. As Europeans, we need these initiatives, and the public spaces, to help different sectors of society speak for themselves. If we are successful, then the minarets ban will have been a small, and likely temporary, price to pay. But we have to move quickly, because the price may become more costly.
Dr HA Hellyer is Fellow of the University of Warwick and Europe Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding