Wednesday, December 2, 2009

On Moroccans, Minarets, and What’s Up with the Swiss

A few weeks ago, the Amazing Bob and I had the great, good fortune to go to Marrakech with some American loved ones. We spent a week in a family-run guest house in the medina. Each day, we toured Morocco like the tourists we were. The souks. The Islamic palaces. The red clay countryside: All of it was magnificent.

Since our guides were local, we also had the great, good fortune to have lunch at a Berber family’s house in the Atlas Mountains. Our guide, Mouha, also insisted on inviting all ten of us home for dinner. His very pregnant aunt prepared a feast for us at a moment’s notice. Friends arrived to join in. Fourteen of us -- Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants -- American, French, Berber, and Arab -- sat around low tables in Mouha’s apartment eating couscous, drinking mint tea, and laughing together until we were nearly comatose.

Needless to say, the hospitality was stunning. Does anybody know tour guides in America or Europe who spontaneously invite 10 foreign clients home for dinner? Mouha claims, however, that such generosity is typical in Morocco.

Friendliness can be faked, but warmth can’t. And I have to say, such warmth has been bestowed on me not only in Morocco, but in every majority-Muslim country I’ve ever visited – Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco. India (not majority, but with one of the largest Muslim populations on the planet). Even in the streets of East Jerusalem.

The everyday people I’ve encountered in these places – in restaurants, parks, post offices, guest houses, souks, and gardens -- have been nothing like the caricatures of Muslims that awaited me a week later when I arrived back home in Geneva.

By now, the world has seen the political posters. They were plastered across Switzerland leading up to a vote on Nov. 29th over whether to constitutionally ban the construction of minarets. Mind you, there are all of four mosques in the entirety of Switzerland. Only two more are slated for construction. And the Muslim population here is roughly 6% -- most from Eastern Europe.

Yet the poster showed a caricature of a woman encased in a black burqa looming ominously over a Swiss flag. The flag was punctured by black minarets in formation like missiles. The visual was scary and stark, the message unmistakable: minarets=burqas, terrorism, and war. Islam is threatening to overtake Switzerland by force, by cultural and military jihad.

The poster was courtesy of the right-wing UDC party – the same folks responsible for an immigration opposition poster that showed three white sheep booting a black sheep off the Swiss flag. Nice, right? Subtle, they ain’t.

The other politicians here pooh-poohed the minaret resolution. Most people seemed certain it wouldn’t pass. But by late Sunday afternoon, 57% of the population had voted to amend the Swiss constitution. Although voters insisted that they weren’t banning anyone from practicing Islam – just minarets themselves– Please. The message was clear: Yosef, go home.

The month that began for me in Morocco ended here in Geneva with friends and family calling in a state of disbelief:

Like the Genevoise themselves -- who heartily rejected the ban—I was dismayed by the vote. But frankly, I was surprised that people were shocked. “So what’s up with the Swiss and the minarets?” my friends in the U.S. cried. “How on earth could they pass such a hideous ban?”

Well, I’ll tell you how -- and I say this not to excuse or endorse, but simply to explain:

The Swiss passed the ban on minarets because they’re pretty much like us.

Think about it.

Right now, there aren’t many Western nations acting smitten towards Muslims. Certainly, we Americans aren’t. We are on high-alert. Are we amazed the Swiss harbor fears similar to our own?

And like American voters, the Swiss electorate is split. One bloc is rural, isolated, pious, and conservative. The other is urban, urbane, progressive, and internationally interactive. This is precisely how the vote went. The rural block voted for the ban; big cities and the international zones voted against it.

Like us, the Swiss pride themselves on religious tolerance. But this doesn’t mean they don’t resent having to make “concessions” to “outsiders” and “minorities.” It’s one thing to tolerate other faiths on paper, quite another to practice it. Hmm. Again: does this sound familiar?

If you look the reasons some Americans currently give for opposing gay marriage, you get a good dose of much of the same thinking behind the Swiss ban on minarets. The rhetorical cocktail of fear, conservatism, and nationalism is virtually the same:

We’re a Christian nation... We’re sick of politicians and big-city elitists trying to impose their agenda on us... So-called tolerance is destroying our nation...We’re taking back our country. We’ve had it with minorities trying to force their lifestyle down our throats...It’s not the norm. Things have gone too far...We want to return to good, old-fashioned values...Don’t kid yourself. We’re in a war.

Switzerland may pride itself on its shining humanitarian ideals – yet like America, it doesn’t always live up to them. Why is this shocking?

And like everyone else on the planet, the Swiss are also given to moments of misplaced vengeance. The ban of minarets was seen as a largely symbolic act: a “The buck-stops-here” sort of posturing. Yet oddly, I don’t think the voters intended it so much for Muslims in their own neighborhood, as a message to extremists, terrorists, and Muslim leaders on a global scale.

Currently, Switzerland is locking horns with Libya. The summer before last, Swiss police arrested Gaddafi’s son and daughter-in-law here for allegedly beating two employees. In retaliation, Gaddafi expelled Swiss businesses from Libya, recalled diplomats, withdrew Libyan assets from Swiss banks, and arrested two Swiss nationals. This fall, Gaddafi even proposed that the UN General Assembly dissolve Switzerland as a nation all together–divvying it up between France, Germany, and Italy.

Needless to say, the people of Switzerland are not big Gaddafi fans at the moment. Some feel the Swiss government has tried too hard to appease him. Others see Gaddafi’s actions as a direct assault on their homeland. Dissolve our country? Excusez-moi?

This likely added to the background noise during the minaret campaign. The ban was seen by some, I imagine, as a way of firing a shot across Gaddafi’s bow – or across the Swiss government’s -- or both.

Logical? No. But we Americans should know better than anyone how conflicts with one or two Muslim leaders can easily mushroom into a wholesale maligning and distrust of Islam – or how a legitimate war on fundamentalism and terrorism can make a nation go ga-ga, and act illogically and counterproductively. We should know better than anyone the follies that fear and defensiveness can spawn. Surely, we should know better than to throw up our hands in disbelief at the Swiss.

And so it goes. Just now, in the days following the minaret ban, Libya has announced that it’s sentencing the two Swiss nationals in custody to 16 months on a prison farm.

Far beyond myself, and Mouha, and the shopkeepers in the souks kindly offering tea, and the good Genevoise people hanging their heads in shame, another round has begun.

2 comments:

Moongrl722 said...

How nice to see this perspective. I know several Muslim families and don't think of them as terrorists any more than I think of Branch Davidians and mainstream Christians.

Your travels to Morroco sound lovely. What a wonderful opportunity to get to know the locals and customs.

Jana

crrz07 said...

Great perspective. Thanks for sharing this through a lens of honesty and reason. Here in Canada, we like to see ourselves as tolerant of others, but sometimes the tolerance we express in our laws and policies are appeasements, and don't always reflect the reality of what actual human beings experience. And as long as we keep thinking of others as "others".......


Through your writings and your travels, you transform the "others" for us, they become friends and family, human beings with aspirations and qualities to be admired (your tour guide & his family are amazing!).

Safe travels!
Chantal