Politicians and Christian leaders are supporting public campaigns and petitions against the construction of mosques which are being denounced for destroying Europe’s Judaeo-Christian heritage.
Central to the current public discussion of Islam is a kind of conjuring trick. By removing Muslims from the social reality they face here in Europe and linking them to the homogenous and repressive force that is said to be global Islam, the discourse vests them with an illusion of unity and power so subversive as to constitute the ‘enemy within’. In reality, though, Europe’s Muslim communities are so diverse – Turks, Kurds, Moroccans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Somalis, Afghanis, Iraqis, Iranians, etc. – and so fragmented in ethnic, national, linguistic and sect terms and so economically marginalised – as to defy any attempt at unity, let alone power.
Nevertheless, the writings and statements of a growing number of public intellectuals, such as Martin Amis and the late Oriana Fallaci, have engendered a revamped form of Orientalism that gives legitimacy to the anti-mosque campaigns being waged across Europe by a motley crew of neo-Nazis, extreme-Right and centre-Right politicians and Christian fundamentalists. And it is in this context that the recent remarks by the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, about the multi-faith society need to be placed.
Populist anti-mosque campaigns
In several countries, such as Austria, Germany and Switzerland, extreme-Right parliamentary parties are seeking constitutional change (sometimes by means of a referendum) to outlaw the construction of mosques and minarets. Communities and local government minister Hazel Blears, who proposes a revival of local democracy through the so-called trigger petition (whereby local councils will be required to respond to any petition submitted by 250 or more people) seems to have little knowledge of how similar petition initiatives, in other European countries, are being used to foment racism.
Under the Swiss model of ‘direct democracy’, where any petition campaign of over 100,000 signatures can force a referendum on a proposed law, the petition tactic has, over recent years, been debased into a racist instrument of the majority. In May 2007, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) – the largest party in parliament – launched a petition initiative with the aim of forcing a new law to ban the construction of minarets (never mind that there are only two mosques with small minarets in the whole of Switzerland). Even though it has until November 2008 to obtain the 100,000 signatures required, the petition campaign has already had its desired effect. Local authority planning officers are simply too frightened to approve any new minaret construction, and the result is an unofficial ban even before the law has been passed.
Belgium, France, Italy
In Belgium and France, legal challenges are under way to make sure that the state gives no financial assistance for the construction of mosques. Meanwhile in Italy, Bulgaria, Germany and Austria (as well as in the UK, where the BNP is active on this issue), the populist movements against the building of mosques have turned ugly and violent. Before she died, the Italian writer Oriana Fallaci said, in an interview with The New Yorker, ‘I do not want to see a 24-metre minaret in the landscape of Giotto when I cannot wear a cross or carry a Bible in their country, so I blow it up!’ The neo-fascist party Forza Nuova has been prominent in subsequent demonstrations, throwing a severed pig’s head at the entrance to the building site of a mosque, and attempting to destroy the foundations of the building itself.
And lest any of the prominent intellectuals who indirectly (or directly in Fallaci’s case) support such anti-mosque hysteria be fooled that racism, once unleashed, can be contained, the actions of a Frankfurt citizen’s committee set up to oppose the Hazmat Fatima community mosque proves otherwise. Supporters of the anti-mosque initiative have now taken to harassing Green councillor Nargess Eskandari-Grünberg, an Iranian refugee who has lived in Germany for twenty years, and her Jewish husband. After standing up to the citizens’ committee’s xenophobic complaints about the number of migrant children in a local school, Nargess Eskandari-Grünberg was bombarded with abusive emails threatening to stone her and demanding her return to her ‘Mullah country, where they will stuff your mouth with the headscarf’. Not content with this, articles have appeared online stating that ‘Her husband is Jew Kurt Grünberg’, adding, helpfully, that ‘psychoanalysis is a typical Jewish profession’.
Invoking Judaeo-Christian heritage
Where once the Nazis spoke of the need to preserve the racial purity of the Volk from alien stock, today the leitmotif for extremist campaigns is cultural purity, with the Judaeo-Christian heritage that is said to mark western European culture, constantly invoked. Thus, Jörg Haider, Governor of Carinthia, where just 2 per cent of the population are Muslim, warns of the threat posed by the erection of ‘institutions which are alien to our culture’. Thus, the Conservative (OVP) Governor of Lower Austria, Erwin Pröll declares that ‘Minarets are something Artfremd and things which are Artfremd do not do a culture any good in the long run.’ In Cologne, where the Muslim citizens of Ehrenfeld’s current prayer room is a dilapidated factory (conditions are so cramped that some must pray in the car park), Cardinal Joachim Meisner expressed himself ‘uneasy’ about the construction of a visibly recognisable mosque, adding that ‘immigration of Muslims has created a breach in our German, European culture’. (But the Cardinal does not have the support of the Roman Catholic clergy in Cologne, many of whom have spoken out in favour of the mosque.)
Muslims, as a faith group, are minorities in democratic secular states, with protected rights, including the right to practise their religion. The anti-mosque campaigners get round this inconvenient fact through a second conjuring trick: denying that Islam is a religion and categorising it instead as a political and criminal ideology that, in the name of security, must be cordoned off from the body politic. Hence, the proposal by Dutch MP, Geert Wilders, to ban the Koran which he argues is similar to Mein Kampf in its legitimisation of violence. In the same vein, the Frankfurt campaigners complained in a letter to the local newspaper that ‘all Muslims’ are ‘incompatible with our legal order’; an Italian Forza Italia MP warned that ‘Our land is contaminated with thousands of these dangerous, spreading cancers which are centres for recruiting fanatics to be martyred in the holy war which Islam is waging against the west’; and Swiss SVP MP Oskar Freysinger sees in the minaret a ‘symbol of political and aggressive Islam … a symbol of Islamic law. The minute you have minarets in Europe it means Islam will have taken over’.
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