Swiss ban on minaret construction

As much as I detest militant Islam, I haven’t hesitated to defend the religion itself in the past. Similarly, I have no qualms about condemning the recent blanket ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland. Whatever assurances the government issues, it amounts to religious discrimination plain and simple. What’s even more ridiculous is that as far as I know the existing zoning laws already make it difficult to build tall minarets in urban areas. To me, construction regulations that prohibit the demolition of recognized heritage sites or the construction of overly tall towers that spoil the existing cityscape is reasonable. This is why you can’t build huge skyscrapers in the centre of Paris, for example.

Also reasonable would be moves to restrict the noise generated by places of worship so long as such rules apply equally to all religions. But unsurprisingly, for many Europeans being roused from your sleep on Sunday morning by the tolling of church bells is perfectly okay, but the Muslim call to prayer is deemed as being offensive. To be fair, many Muslim majority countries restrict the activities of other religions as well but this doesn’t give the minaret banning any legitimacy. Framing this as a tit-for-tat bargaining move is not acceptable.

Those who don’t think this is particularly alarming should recall the familiar “First they came…” lines by Martin Niemöller. The far right parties in Europe are targeting Muslims because they’ve realized that this is an unpopular group and they can score easy populist victories off of this cause. But historically the far right parties have no love for many other minority groups as well, including Jews, homosexuals and blacks. As one poster on QT3 put it, they might be only saying, “Let’s get all the Muslims out of Europe now” but they are really thinking, “And the rest of them will follow later.”

The most worrisome thing about this is that the ban came not from a government decision but from a public vote, which makes it an example of one of the limitations of a democracy. The correct response is not that democracy is bad and authoritarian governments are good, but that democracy should be curtailed by a set of inviolable rights for all individuals. Regardless of the source of a government’s legitimacy, no government should have the power to overturn anyone’s basic rights and being able to build whatever places of worship people want is certainly one of those rights.

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