Tuesday, December 8, 2009

deflect attention from their own bigotry with other examples

This is a guest post for swpd by Jillian C. York, who began her writing career after living in Morocco and publishing her first book, Culture Smart! Morocco: A Guide To Customs and Culture (Random House, 2006), shortly thereafter. Jillian describes herself as "a writer, activist, Internet censorship combatant, and blogger currently based in Boston. I work at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society on the OpenNet Initiative and Herdict, and blog all over the place, including for the Huffington Post. My personal blog resides here, and I tweet here." 

As many of you have probably read, the people of Switzerland recently voted by referendum to ban minarets. The decision followed a campaign by the right-wing SVP Party, which used this poster to convince voters:

The ban passed by a vote of 58%.

I've spent the past week or so reading up on the ban. I know that Switzerland has traditionally low voter turnout.  I know that the offensive poster was banned in the cities of Basel, Lausanne, and Fribourg, and I know that in Switzerland's most urban areas, most people voted against the ban.

Over the past week, I've also read defenders of the Swiss ban who point to examples of bigotry from majority-Muslim countries. These derailing excuses range from the utterly false ("But minarets represent oppression of women!") to the factually correct ("But Saudi Arabia bans churches!").

To those defenders of Swiss bigotry I say: Two wrongs don't make a right.

In addition, let's get some pertinent facts straight:

  • The ban is on minarets alone, not mosques. However, the minarets in Switzerland do not amplify the adhan, or call to prayer.  So, this is not, as the SVP Party has claimed, a noise issue. 
  • The vote was a ban on minarets for being minarets, not (as Swiss detractors claimed) for their height.  This is not a building code issue.  There is no ordinance in Switzerland against bell towers, and minarets are already (quite reasonably) held to the country's code that restricts buildings to a certain height.
  • Some majority-Muslim countries do ban the building of new churches, but Saudi Arabia is the only majority-Muslim country that outright bans churches entirely (which I personally feel is wrong, but which others have said is akin to the Vatican banning mosques). 
  • Many countries with a majority Muslim population have no restrictions on churches and some, like Syria, grant churches free water and other government amenities. 
  • Not a single majority-Muslim country with a democratically elected government bans churches.

That last point is the kicker in this comparison that xenophobic non-Muslims like to make to supposed instances of bigotry in majority-Muslim countries.  Can Muslims be bigoted?  Sure, we all can, and I for one do feel that the ban on church restoration in Egypt, for example, is certainly bigoted against Egypt's native and foreign-born Christian populations.  But worth pointing out here is the fact that, in countries where restrictions on church-building remain, democracy doesn't really exist.  Such restrictions were not -- unlike the Swiss banning of minarets -- the choice of the people.

It is therefore absurd that defenders of the Swiss ban are attempting to justify it as anything other than xenophobia.  I've also heard arguments that the ban recognizes the "fact" that minarets represent political Islam.  False -- minarets are not even required of mosques, but they exist all over the world, in places where Islam is political and in places where it isn't.  I've also heard arguments that it's about the "purity of the Swiss skyline." Guess what?  It's not. The campaign posters prove that, with their emphasis on Muslim people, as well as minarets.

Let's talk more about that poster itself for a minute: It depicts a woman, clad in what most Westerners would call a "burqa," alongside 7 missile-shaped minarets. More lies.

First of all, Switzerland's Muslim population contains large numbers of immigrants from Turkey and Bosnia; While Turkish-style hijab looks something like this (and Bosnian-style hijab is similar), and very few Swiss Muslims wear any type of face covering at all, the poster is making the assertion that Muslim women are oppressed, draped in black, hidden. Again, the emphasis -- and a misleading emphasis at that -- is on Muslims, as much or more as it's on minarets.

And as for minarets themselves?  Well, Switzerland actually only has four (which will be allowed to remain), and none of them look like missiles.  In fact, the style of minaret on the poster is not at all the most common style; it appears to be appropriated from the Hagia Sophia, which was converted from a church to a mosque in the 15th century.  In other words, the poster is not at all representative of Switzerland's actual existing Muslim population.  In other words, that is, the poster, like the campaign and the vote it brought about, is blatantly racist.

In fact, I don't think this decision can be fairly considered anything but racist.  A majority-white population intentionally targeting and restricting minarets, a symbol of Islam (but not a necessary factor for it), serves only one purpose: to send a message that says, "you're not really welcome here." And trying to divert attention, by claiming that various similar offenses exist in majority-Muslim countries, is simply an effort to ignore that ugly, xenophobic, racist message.


I think it's worth reading other perspectives, and there are tons out there.  This article, which I wrote, links to a number of blogs from across the Middle East and North Africa (note the comments too, most of which are horribly racist).  Here are a few more that I recommend:


  1. Nice analysis, Jillian ~ thanks for this.

  2. Anti-religious movements are often times a cover up for White Supremacy/Racism. Please look to the Nazis and the "war on terror" as prime examples.

  3. Should we create a bingo card called Everything/Anything But Racism?

    For example, the banning of minarets.

    "It's a safety thing!"

    "Those people could be terrorists!"

    "It's sexist!"

    And so on and so forth.

    Anything But Racism.

  4. RVC, I hear you on that new bingo card!

    Pumpkin, you are so on point!

    Jillian, great analysis!

  5. I am sorry but your arguments don't hold; makes me tired and angry if people can't just discuss things based on facts:

    The swiss don't ban mosques!! Only the minaret, which are is a visible sign of the presence of the muslim religion (we can debate if it's excessive or not).
    While I regret that this decision has been made, please compare what you can compare. No one is banning muslims from practicing their religion freely. The Muslim faith can also be practiced without a minaret (most mosques in Europe don't have one).
    The question is more whether swiss people can freely decide on the visible a expression of islam that changes their landscape. If they have to accept it or if there is some room for preservantion of their culture and traditions. Swiss people are very conservative with preserving their cities the way they are: If you have been in Switzerland you will now that.

    That's it. And by the way it is very difficult to build a new church and practice another religion freely (including proselytism) in Muslim Countries, you can't deny that.

  6. migid wrote,

    And by the way it is very difficult to build a new church and practice another religion freely (including proselytism) in Muslim Countries, you can't deny that.

    Thank you for providing a real live example of exactly the common white tendency that this post is about. Please read it more carefully, beginning with its title.

    migid's first words are interesting too: I am sorry but . . .

    I hear that a lot in discussions of race, right before the person says something that's basically racist. It seems very close to "I'm not a racist, but . . . "

  7. Very good post Jillian. What a pity people like migid below manage to STILL completely ignore everything you said.

  8. Thanks for this post Jillian, great analysis.

    Migid--I don't see anywhere in the post where Jillian makes the claim that the Swiss have banned mosques. Rather, the Swiss have banned minarets, which are a visible symbol of the existence of a mosque. What if I told you, I don't want to see any crosses on your church, you can have a church, but I don't want you to have any visible symbol of your religion to mark said church, its messing up my landscape, thats all, its nothing personal. You can still practice your faith freely, just no crosses on the outside of your churches, that won't affect the practice of your religion, will it?

    I cannot stand how people, especially in this country, will make support the deprivation of equal rights for Muslims in the U.S. or European countries by saying, they do it to Christians in Muslim countries. Besides being factually inaccurate for the most part, since when does what some other, less democratic, purportedly "Muslim" country does makes it ok to oppress people here in the supposedly land of the "free."

  9. I'm starting to worry about your liver, RVCBard.

    migid, if I understand correctly, the Swiss national identity is as a safe harbor for refugees, for diversity, and for anonymity. Displays of xenophobia and racism, which the minaret ban and associated poster very obviously are, degrade that identity rather than protecting it.

  10. Hey guys; be nice and please don't call me immediatly racist. There is nothing racist about what I wrote. And by the way islam is not a race, but a religion. (it should be a choice by people to adopt it or not)

    What I was saying is that you can't compare prohibiting a minaret with prohibiting mosques or churches. (the comparison is made in the post). This is not the issue.

    I am really not white supremascist either (I am mixed race) and have some people in my family who are muslims.

    I respect that everyone can practice their religion, but there should be a debate I think about how much a new culture that arrived in a country recently has to adapt to the "natives".

    The minaret is an ostensible sign of the muslim relgion that serves as a call for prayer and is made to be seen by the entire community. It is not an obligatory element of a mosque. While I agree that it is dicriminatory to prohibit a particular building from one religion you have also to acknoledge the history of a country and it's traditions.

    There is no human right to build a minaret, but a human right to practice a religion. All laws discriminate somehow. Why prohibit smoking in public buildings, or the ritual killing of animals (which is prohibited in Switzerland due to strong animal protection - this discriminates against jews for example) or the prohibition of the church of scientology in France?

    I think the whole problem poses fundamental questions on what people are able to decide regarding the environment they live in. A difference should be made between public and private space.

    It took 800 years to Europe to get rid of the influence of the catholic religion in the state. The jesuit order for example was prohibited in Switzerland until the 1960s.

    I also don't think it's necessary senseless to talk about reciprocity. We should also draw some of the attention to minorities who are really persecuted in other countries (incl. muslim countries).

    I don't think it's worth making such a fuss about it. Muslims in Switzerland are certainly not dicriminated the way other people are (for example the Bahia in Iran).

    Well I think if this initiative has at least a merit it is to create a necessary debate. It brings people to speak openly about the concerns they have. Even if those are concerns about a particular religion.

  11. @migid

    "While I regret that this decision has been made, please compare what you can compare . . . . Swiss people are very conservative with preserving their cities the way they are."

    They're not harming Jews; they're just requiring them to wear yellow stars and keeping them in certain areas. Germans are very conservative about preserving their culture the way it is.

  12. I love how migid fell right into the default white defensive mode. Completely failed to comprehend the point of the post and of the blog.

    I really wish European countries would just be honest and close their doors to Muslim immigration, and only grant anyone with a Muslim face (or at least Middle-Eastern look) only temporary work visa. The Muslims are like the Mexicans of Europes - the dominate whites need them for cheap labor, but hated them for trying to make a home here. It's pretty similar to the "English Only" law - watch the American whites come out and use the exact same logic as migid to defend their racist tactics.

  13. wow, RVCBard, you gave us a nice example of "two wrongs don't make a right"

    I'm gonna take a drink on you!


  14. "And by the way Islam is not a race, but a religion. (it should be a choice by people to adopt it or not)."

    A large proportion of minority groups in Europe, as opposed to here in the U.S., are Muslim or are of ethnicities typically associated with practicing Islam. Islamophobia is often times purely a cover for racism and xenophobia on the part of the White majority, because at this point in the Western world, it is generally frowned upon to straight out say hateful things against a particular race, but you can say a lot of really horrible bad things about Muslims or Islam and it's tolerated.

    "I am really not white supremascist either (I am mixed race) and have some people in my family who are muslims."

    How many derailing techniques can fit into one post? Seriously, I'm glad I am Muslim and thus cannot participate in RVCBard's drinking game (sorry RVCBard), because I would have alcohol poisoning by now.

    "I also don't think it's necessary senseless to talk about reciprocity. We should also draw some of the attention to minorities who are really persecuted in other countries (incl. muslim countries).

    I don't think it's worth making such a fuss about it. Muslims in Switzerland are certainly not dicriminated the way other people are (for example the Bahia in Iran)."

    I really don't see how it is relevant at all to discuss the discrimination against Bahai in Iran in a discussion about the discrimination against Muslims in Switzerland, although you do realize that by setting up such straw man analaogies, you are tacitly acknowledging that the actions by the Swiss do amount to discrimination?

  15. wow, RVCBard, you gave us a nice example of "two wrongs don't make a right"

    And yet another example of Just Not Getting It.

  16. I love how migid fell right into the default white defensive mode.

    I love how the main thrust of what migid said was ignored - this isn't a ban on mosques, but a ban on minarets. It's not equivalent to Saudi Arabia, which bans churches, but more equivalent to Egypt, which bans the restoration of churches. It isn't expulsion of muslims, but oppression of them.

    It's still totally xenophobic and evil, but look at it for what it is.

    Similarly the passing comparison between Saudi, a bona fide country, and the Vatican, a boy's club the size of a shopping centre - where would you put a mosque in the Vatican, anyway? It might have been a bit more comparable if it was just Mecca and Medina, but even then, those are actual cities.

    I think it's a huge waste of time and effort anyway, because even if you agreed with the vote, not having a minaret on a mosque is like not having a bell on a church - it's not going to stop anyone going to it. On the one hand it might be the start of a slippery slope, but on the other hand it's revealed intentions early, fomenting discussion and backlash.

  17. Why was migid allowed to derail the discussion? So much for macon's new moderation.

  18. @Disgruntled:

    Why was migid allowed to derail the discussion?

    Migid was not derailing but generously providing an example of problematic behaviors.

  19. Disgruntled, I agree with RVC on that one -- that's why I published migid's initial comment (as I explained afterward).

    I'm still working out this new commenting method (including deciding whether I should really continue it). I do agree with the commenters who have said they enjoy and/or learn from what happened (again) here -- awesome takedowns of clueless comments by other savvy commenters. I anticipated that here, so let migik's comment through, but I was pulled by other concerns that made "decline to publish" strongly tempting.

  20. It is right, all of this excuses are lame. The ban means only one thing: a huge sign of "Muslims not welcome". It was a workaround method because they can't them directly to get the hell out. And I think they are perfectly entitled to that after seeing how well Muslim immigration worked out for neighboring countries.

    As for the whole Europe needs Muslims for jobs, that's full of bullshit since we hear in the next sentence how enormous numbers of second generation Muslims are unemployed (or unemployable) and are busy creating no-go zones or rioting.

  21. I'm not saying it isn't wrong, but my question is why is it our place to say? Shouldn't the criticism come from within? I mean, the black community might consider someone like Michael Steele an "Uncle Tom", but do they really want to hear a white person call that person an "Uncle Tom"? Coming from an outsider, no matter if your view is valid, your criticisms are perceived differently. So though you might be speaking from the right place, your words could get interpreted wrongly.

    But I understand that this could be seen as isolationism, and that maybe sometimes you need to speak out. So my question is, when is it okay? And why is it okay for this (I am assuming American) author to criticize a foreign culture she does not belong to, though she might better understand racial dynamics in general? Why do we speak out for them, why can we not let the Swiss anti-racists say something and then support them?

    That's an open question though, I'm not sure.

  22. davi,

    Are you seriously saying that because Muslims in some European countries find the racist, xenophobic treatment of them so intolerable that they riot in response, other European countries shouldn't welcome Muslims? Seems to me you're ignoring the main problem.

  23. I'm still lit from last night's round of comments. I gotta drink some water and set up a potential liver transplant if I'm going to keep reading here.

    And perhaps there should be another post on Stuff White People Do: Think that PoC cannot be racist either against other PoC (within or outside their group). That's where the "I have a [insert PoC identity] friend" excuse comes in. Trust there are plenty of "Uncle Ruckuses" out there who are intensely White-identified.

  24. @EPT who said Similarly the passing comparison between Saudi, a bona fide country, and the Vatican, a boy's club the size of a shopping centre - where would you put a mosque in the Vatican, anyway? It might have been a bit more comparable if it was just Mecca and Medina, but even then, those are actual cities.:

    Nope. While I agree with your assessment that there would be no room to build mosques (I've visited there personally), the fact is that the Vatican is legally an independent nation. While it's within Italy, it has its own recognized borders and internationally-accepted status as being a sovereign nation.

    @OP: I find your assessment of the woman on the poster (that she's hidden away/oppressed) neat, because I saw it in a very different way; I thought they made her look as menacing (omg terrorists!) as possible, with the down-turned eyebrows and all. (Judging the poster on a purely aesthetic basis as propaganda art, it's actually quite excellent; it uses the classic propaganda-poster color scheme, it's stark and simple, and the fact that it's somewhat open to interpretation based on the viewer's own feelings is another point in its favor. I'm not at all surprised that it was successful.)

    And I'm getting my bottle of Kahlua ready for the expected onslaught of "Islam's a religion and therefore it isn't racism!" comments. Really, is it such a hard concept that while Islam *is* a religion rather than a race, "Muslim" is basically a synonym for "Middle Eastern" in many uneducated people's minds, and therefore anti-Islamic views from those people are equivalent to anti-Middle-Eastern views?

  25. @Witchsistah
    I totally agree with your topic suggestion, that's something that really needs to be addressed and explained. There are three things I've heard most from whites (the underlying messages, anyway):
    1) "PoC are racist too, so this negates my own racism."
    2) "If PoC from x group believe in the stereotypes about x/y group, that must prove that the stereotypes are based in fact and therefore ok for me to believe."
    3) "If a PoC makes a racist joke about a race not they're own, it's ok to find it funny and laugh at it because a PoC is a PoC, right?"

    A lot of white people fail to see that we're not just "minorities", we are all different people from different backgrounds and we are treated differently by society. My Asian grandmother has an entirely different experience from my black neighbors.

    They also fail to understand internalized racism and the impact society's pressure to "act white" has, even on white people.

    Oh and while we're suggesting topics, I'd really love to see a "Assume People who Treat PoC Poorly are 'Just Having a Bad Day'"

  26. Cloudy,

    Internalized racism is a whole 'nutha blog topic. But that's the first thing I think when I hear some White person saying that their "friend" of color (and I've been White folks' "Black friend" when I couldn't even pick those folks out of a line up) thinks [list racist thing here] is just "A-okay!"

    See, I used to be the "Black friend" and "one of the good 'uns" in my youth. The toll on my soul, psyche, mental state and dignity were waaaaaaaay too much for the parsimonious "reward" I got (White folk thinking I was good enough to be their pet darkie for a while). That's much of the reason why I'm such an onery, snarky, ol' Black bitch today.

    I realize there is absolutely NOTHING of any real substance to be gained by being the "Good Darkie." You'll get pet on the head for a while, but you'll eventually be replaced by a "better" or trendier model, or you'll do something to irk your White patrons and they'll kick you to the curb ("Gee, we were wrong about him/her. I thought s/he was different than those others!").

  27. Robin, what I meant by the Vatican/Saudi thing is that the Vatican isn't a country with a functioning economy, a full range of social classes, and a population that perpetuates itself - and what population there is doesn't even reach 1000. When talking of nations, the Vatican is a highly specialised example. It's a bit of a moot point anyway because it'd be pretty much guaranteed that any non-Catholic that wanted to move to the Vatican to live and demand rights to religious practice would be doing so specifically to antagonise the current population, rather than an attempt to improve their own lives.

    I'd be surprised if there's actually a written law saying that mosques are forbidden in the Vatican - it seems like it'd be redundant. But then again, they do store a lot of old written words...

  28. 'Such restrictions were not -- unlike the Swiss banning of minarets -- the choice of the people.' (macon)
    If the people were asked, you sure they'd vote liberal? Secular Turkey was created very much from above. Syria (mentioned in your post) is a dictatorship dominated by a group of borderline Muslim heretics; if the people were asked they might vote for the Muslim Brotherhood. The Moor Next Door writes approvingly of Western elites protecting minorities; ironic, that is. Saddam was good to the Iraqi Christians, too. Now they're mostly in exile or dead.

  29. 'the fact is that the Vatican is legally an independent nation' (Robin)
    The fact is that it is 44 hectares of land, inhabited by Catholic clergy and their support staff. Saudi Arabia is a huge country with a mixed population. Apples and oranges.

  30. I saw this and couldn't believe the racists in Switzerland are doing this. Not once have Muslims ever banned Christian symbols in their countries. They've never persecuted Christians in this manner despite what lies our corporate news media/propaganda feeds us.

    Honestly, the UN should step in and restore the rights to the Muslims being persecuted by Christians in Switzerland and throughout Europe. Europeans should strive to be as tolerant, supportive of individual rights and be as peaceful as Islamic nations worldwide.

    And to migid, you are showing your racism loud and clear. I only hope you will one day open your eyes and truly respect those different from you.

  31. @tenlee
    Islam is, like any major religion, a religion of peace and of war, of bigotry and of tolerance. It is what people make of it. You are being a reverse Islamophobe and you do not get the truth by reversing a lie by 180 degrees.

  32. It's simply politics. Politics is all about unlimited human wants/needs competing for limited resources. So people organize themselves into groups that help them achieve greater control of the resources available in order to improve the chances of satisfying their needs. Countries can be considered such groups. Other 'political groups' include companies, trade unions, gated communities, co-ops, political parties (duh), gangs, families, organizations like NATO, EU, etc, religions, RACES... The Human race is in itself a group and would behave as such in competition with an extra terrestrial group, for example.


    Switzerland is a group. Think of it as a huge, beautiful, proud gated community. With limited resources contained within it. Its cultural heritage could be considered part of the limited resources. It is in the group's best interest to keep its resources to itself and prevent outsiders (foreign cultures) from sharing. The same way one pride of lions will resist another entering its hunting territory. Because there isn’t enough Switzerland to share. The same way you don't want someone else sharing your house. Or building minarets in your beautiful backyard. It is threatening, unsettling, feels like they are planting their flags in your digs, next thing they'll be ransacking your fridge.

    Xenophobia is just that. A phobia. A fear. A feeling of insecurity. Hitler understood that. Notice how politicians exploit fear in the masses. What are we so afraid of? The loss of our resources. That tomorrow we shall go hungry.

    Politics is the genesis of racism. It is ugly but that's just the human animal for you. Competition. Organizing ourselves into groups in order to boost our chances.

    As the global population increases, these tensions will increase. Politics. Competition. Conflicts. How many wars are in our future?

    The next step in human evolution might be mental, and might be catalysed greatly by Information Technology, and we shall realize that we are really just one big group, no need for all these little competing political organizations. And by one big group I don't mean human beings. I mean every living thing. And we should somehow figure out how to share the UNLIMITED universe.

    Whew. What babble. From a very black man in Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa :]

  33. Thank you for this well-written article. I was actually coming back from Hajj when I first read about this. A friend of mine tweeted about it, so I went online to find out what they were talking about, and found this article on the Christian Science Monitor website.

    I found the title "Swiss ban on minarets was a vote for tolerance and inclusion" headline rather odd, but figured it might make sense once I'd read the article. What followed was a paranoid, meandering rant about how minarets would lead to Islamist Domination of Switzerland (somehow).

    Then I saw who the author was--Ayaan Hirsi Ali. If you don't know who this is, she's a ex-Muslim refugee from Somalia (she immigrated to the Netherlands, then eventually the US). In a nutshell, she'd had horrible things happen to her in her native land--all cultural behaviors done in the name of Islam--and eventually moved to Europe and denounced Islam. She now makes it her personal crusade to, rather than deal seriously with problems in the Muslim community, to denounce Islam in any form (or, as she puts it, it's okay to be Muslim as long as you don't practice.

    She has been taken under the wing of an ultra right wing think tank and is regarded by many Westerners (who don't know any Muslims personally) as an expert on Islam (although she is not actually an Islamic scholar, but merely an expert on her own personal experiences). She is perfect as a spokesperson for such a group, because not only is she an ex-Muslim, but also a woman AND she's black! So she can't be racist, right? right??

    Anyway, as I said, I had just completed Hajj, a deeply spiritual experience, one that focused wholly on elevating one's self to a higher state of being--emphasizing charity, kindness, honesty and patience. Politics was not discussed, nor how to convert others to Islam, or any such nonsense. Ms. Ali's perception of Islam was so at odds with my experience with it in its purest form; it was very disheartening to see this situation unfold, as well as such a backwards view of it published in a respectable magazine.

    So I thank you for your article in this blog. You hit the mark perfectly on this issue. Whatever reasons a person may give for banning minarets, there is only one real reason for it, and that's to send a message--"you MOSLEMS aren't welcome here."


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