Jan 6, 2010

Wrong reflection

Over 40 percent Swiss people opposed the ban on minarets, which means they have no problems living together with the people of other faiths

By Ansar Mahmood Bhatti

There is a topic of sociological and political importance in the context of Christians and Muslims residing in Europe -- Islamophobia; does it really exist? One may come across divergent views while trying to understand the issue. While some would deny it, others would attribute it to the September 11 attacks; some would even associate it with the increased presence of Muslims in the Western world. Whatever may be the causes of this phenomena, one thing is for sure that the gulf of differences between the two sides has swelled rather out of proportions during the past few years, the root cause of which turns out to be the widening communication gap and futility of Muslims and Christians' bodies that have failed to live up to the expectations.

After the infamous cartoon row, originating from Denmark when a Danish newspaper published blasphemous caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the November 29 decision of the Swiss people, voting for a ban on new minarets of mosques, has given birth to a new debate. Or for some, the controversy has already taken its course pitching Muslims and non Muslims against each others. This particular incident comes at a moment when efforts are already underway for bridging differences between the East and the West, or at least there is a sincere sense of realisation on the part of both divides that some damage control steps should be taken in order achieve objective of a peaceful co-existence.

Soon after the 9/11 incidents relations between the Muslims and the West became estranged. The Afghan invasion, under the aegis of world's policeman Nato, gave further rise to hostilities. Since then relations between the two have constantly been moving towards a precipice. Muslim population of this area believes, the US and its cronies are fighting in Afghanistan with a view to strengthening their foothold in the region and in order to maintain a close watch on various Islamic groups that, according to them, might pose any future threats to them. Maybe when they first came to Afghanistan the real purpose would be to hunt for the Al-Qaeda leadership but this is for sure their existing policy does not merely revolve around Al Qaeda. They certainly have a hidden agenda to accomplish.

Before the Nato forces gate-crashed into this region, perception of Muslims, especially in the Western countries was of a tolerant; peaceful law abiding community that strongly believed in peaceful co-existence with the natives. Even the natives used to exercise a greater level of tolerance and capacity to live together with immigrants in those good times.

When it comes to expressing anti-Muslim sentiments, apart from Switzerland, one may find countries like France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and to some extent Norway in the dock as well. However, while jumping on to conclusions one important aspect needs to be kept in mind that still, there is no dearth of people across the European belt that believe in peaceful co-existence with the immigrants, especially Muslims. Over 40 percent of Swiss people opposed ban on minarets, which means they have no problems in living together with peoples of other nationalities, and with Muslims in this particular case.

Though the Swiss People's Party (SVP), a dominant group in the parliament, championed for the said ban, yet we cannot say it in any way should reflect the government policy. The composition of the Swiss government is extremely eccentric and unique as it is neither a presidential nor a parliamentary form of government. It is in fact a mix of both. So it is not necessary those in the Federal Council, should also dominate in the parliament.

Equally important is to have a clear understanding of the Swiss Peoples Party's mindset that not only has anti-Muslim posture but it does not like the European Union as well. Opposition to the EU by this party is one of the core reasons that Switzerland, despite being situated in the heart of Europe, is still out of the European Union. SVP claims to have a considered opinion about the 27-member bloc that it basically represents a bunch of self-interested powers that want to establish their authority by rendering irrelevant the parliaments of member countries. Becoming an EU member, the party believes, would be tantamount to mortgaging the Swiss sovereignty and neutrality and vesting too much authority in Brussels.

However, this should not absolve the government and other political parties of Switzerland from their responsibilities whose prime duty is to create an environment in which all communities could live peacefully.

This task should not be a difficult one by all means for political will is already there so what the politicians should do is to translate this will into reality. A majority of other European countries earnestly want an early reversal of this decision, and this factor should be a source of encouragement for the Swiss government. Here the Irish model maybe emulated. In 2007, the Irish people rejected the Lisbon Treaty because the euro-skeptic parties propagated to their people that if the treaty comes into force, sovereignty and basic human rights might be compromised. However, after one year same parties approved of the same treaty only because the propaganda drive this time was in favour the treaty.

In 2005, the French and Dutch voters rejected the then European Constitution because their leaders asked them for that. A majority of voters that said no to the draft of the Constitution had not actually gone through the text. Same was the case with the Dutch voters who rejected the draft Constitution because the French had done so. We can draw a conclusion that referendums might not necessarily reflect opinions of the general public.

When I asked Lord Pearson, head of UK's Independence Party (UKIP), how he viewed ban on minarets, he replied, "That is a matter for the Swiss people as is the question of Christian churches for the peoples of Saudi Arabia. When in Rome do as the Romans do."

Lord Pearson and his party want Britain to pull out of the European Union sooner rather than later and he would heavily be banking on this slogan in the upcoming general elections to be held next year 2010. Apart from Mr. Pearson there are other individuals like Dutch MP Geert Wilders who perceive Islam as a threat. Wilders' film 'Fitna' speaks volumes of his inbuilt prejudice against Islam. Agreed, the Dutch government chose to dissociate itself from the film, yet it did not do enough to avoid the spillover effects of that incident. Nor did it do anything to allay the fears of Muslims living in the Netherlands that their freedoms shall not be forfeited by introducing a ban on burqa. Geert Wilders is the man who first suggested the idea of this ban.

Norway ranks atop among those countries where peoples of other faiths are allowed to freely exercise their religious freedoms. Immigrants as well as the natives here have ideal conditions for a peaceful co-existence. But during the last general election campaign, some candidates raised objections that the respective governments had allowed 'sneak-Islamisation' of the Norwegian society.

Siv Jensen, leader of the opposition Progress Party, objected to the moves to introduce special measures in order to accommodate Muslims' religious sensitivities, traditions and rules. A few years ago when I met Ms. Jensen and asked her, why she was against immigrants, especially the Muslims, she said, "It is not true that I am against any particular faith, however, I think the immigrants must try to integrate into the system they have chosen to be part of. Majority of them does not do this therefore problems arise". On its part, the OIC must play a role.

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