On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Swiss in the doghouse

THE Swiss are not known for making global headlines. Like the way they run their banks, they prefer the conservative and low-key approach to handling any issue.

But they have suddenly been condemned worldwide for their decision to ban the building of minarets on mosques.

The decision, backed by the country’s far right Swiss People’s Party, is as good as banning the construction of mosques.

The advocates of this policy have equated minarets to Islamisation, with caricatures on posters showing the physical similarities between minarets and missiles.

They also argued that minarets were incompatible with the country’s political and legal systems as mosques advocated the imposition of Syariah laws.

The controversy started in the small town of Langenthal when its community of 750 Muslims applied for permission to add a minaret to its mosque. The town, with a population of 14,500, has 11 churches.

The strong reaction to this harmless request has shocked Switzerland’s neighbours.

It is right that the decision has led to global outrage, and pressure should be mounted to make Switzerland an international pariah. Even the Swiss Bishops Conference has issued a statement condemning the shocking results of the referendum.

Critics have pointed out that mosques seemed to be discriminated against, as Sikh temples and Orthodox churches did not face such difficulties in the country.

What has probably not been said is that Europe is feeling uneasy over the large number of Muslims who have migrated to the continent, especially France.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy has pushed for the ban of the purdah or burqa, saying such garments were “unwelcome” and a “threat to the secular constitution”.

In Switzerland, there are reportedly over 40,000 Muslims who are mostly from the former Yugoslavia, which has no history of Islamic radicalism.

Malaysia has correctly joined in the chorus of protest with Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman describing the banning of minarets as a setback to the promotion of global religious tolerance.

He said Malaysia was deeply concerned that the ban had happened in an era of globalisation and in a country that had long supported human rights and had continuously advocated peace and understanding between the Muslim and the non-Muslim worlds.

“Malaysia hopes the Swiss government will take every effort to reverse the act of intolerance that would serve to generate negative consequences on society, especially the Muslim community, as a result of the referendum,” he said.

Anifah said the ban was a serious blow to religious freedom and would infringe on the rights of the minority to practise their religion in Switzerland.

That is precisely the point – the rights of the minority must always be respected. In the case of Switzerland, it is the tyrant majority disregarding the rights of the minority.

Deep in their hearts, many Swiss would probably say that if the minority Muslims do not like it, they can simply pack their bags and leave the country.

It is the same kind of ignorance and bigotry that we in Malaysia often get from some racists.

In their inability to argue rationally and fairly, they often resort to such mindless retorts, citing that it was the majority decision and that the minority must always respect the majority.

But the minority – whether you are Muslim, Buddhist, Christian or Kabbalah – does have a constitutional right to build their places of worship and to practise their religion. We all call God in many names, and it is the Creator that one gives honour and love to. The path is the same.

France has no legal right to ban the veil, which they also see as a form of gender discrimination even though many Middle Eastern women see the wearing of it as a religious or cultural requirement.

But the point is, how can legislation be imposed on what one wants to wear? If they choose to cover up from head to toe, that’s their business.

Similarly, if women choose to colour their hair, wear tight jeans or mini-skirts, that’s also their right. Why should we impose our values on these people simply to make them conform to our standards?

No one should be telling us what concerts we should or should not watch. Only extremists impose such conditions and they are not even in power yet in Malaysia.

The construction of mosques, temples and churches should be made simple and no politician or official should make it difficult.

Christians in Malaysia have long made representation to the Government about how local authorities often turn a simple application to build a church into a complicated process. Putting up a Buddhist temple is easy but to build a church, that’s another story.

Construction of many of the grand Catholic churches that now exist in Penang and Malacca was done by missionaries decades ago.

In the case of Protestant churches, they are found mainly in office buildings and shoplots – hardly conducive environments for the worship of God even if we hold steadfast to the belief that God is everywhere.

The reaction of the Swiss is, to say the least, shocking as they are an educated lot and one would expect more from them.

A minaret is just a harmless physical addition to a mosque and is like any other feature in a religious building, be it a church, synagogue or temple. These features should be admired rather than condemned or, worse, feared.