Nurrohman , Bandung | Tue, 12/15/2009 9:04 AM | Opinion
Switzerland is a tiny state, with a population of around 7.5 million — less than the population of Jakarta. As recently as the 1970s there were fewer than 20,000 Muslims living in Switzerland.
Because of immigration from Turkey and the former state of Yugoslavia, as well as conversion among Swiss nationals, the population of Swiss Muslims has now grown to about 400,000, around 5 percent of the total population.
Thanks to globalization, news of “strange” conditions affecting Muslims in Switzerland spread rapidly to other Muslims worldwide.
In response to mounting criticism from Muslim figures and human rights activists worldwide on its recent ban on minarets, Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said the recent referendum banning the building of new minarets was not “a referendum against Islam … but a vote directed fundamentalist developments” (The Jakarta Post, Dec. 1, 2009).
While the move to limit the growth of fundamentalism, particularly in its radical forms, is understandable, banning minarets is not the right way to go about this because fundamentalism as a form of religious understanding has no correlation with building minarets.
For this reason, among the Swiss people there are also those for and against the ban.
Swiss government officials and business leaders in fact recommended a “no” vote for this referendum, and most people did not expect it to be passed.
Nevertheless, on Nov. 29, 2009 the ban was passed, with 57.5 percent of the vote in 22 of 26 cantons (provinces) in favor — the double approval that makes it part of the Swiss constitution.
According to the proponents of the ban, the minaret is symbolic of “political Islam” and a desire to expand Muslim power in Europe.
They see “Islamism” as a foreign ideology and legal system that has no place in a European secular democracy. They fear that the growing Muslim population may be violent, power-hungry terrorists who want to implement Islamic law in Europe.
Those who have argued against the law base their argument on several points. Freedom of religion is fundamental to Swiss law and European human rights treaties.
A minaret is a simple and common architectural feature of a mosque, and is neither a safety risk nor a public nuisance. A minaret carries no political symbolism or significance.
Advertising campaigns to promote the law were racist. The law may alienate Swiss Muslims, who are largely of European origin and are known to be moderate. The international outcry against the law may have negative impacts on the Swiss economy and foreign relations.
Government and religious leaders worldwide have denounced the ban. The UN Human Rights Committee has said it may also be a violation of international law. Swiss opposition groups have vowed to challenge the law in the European Court of Human Rights.
So, what is the lesson we can learn from religious adherents who really want to make “humanity an authentic family of which each of us is a member”, a phrase used by Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, the president of the Pontifical Council For Inter-religious Dialogue at Vatican, who recently visited Indonesia.
To my mind, the lesson that can be drawn from this fiasco is that intolerance and potential violence is caused by misunderstanding between non-Muslims and Muslims prevails worldwide, including in our home country.
If people in predominantly Christian secular states fear that a growing Muslim population may have negative impacts on them, the same is felt among predominantly Muslim secular states such as Indonesia.
Many religious leaders in West Java’s grassroots, for example, are firm believers that Muslims should refuse to allow Christians to build churches in their neighborhoods.
They have also forbidden Muslims from wishing their Christian brothers a “Merry Christmas” or from attending Christmas celebrations. Many of them also fear that the growth of the Christian population West Java will change its demographic structure.
When surveyed in 2008, for example, 86 percent of those surveyed agree with the statement: “Muslims should refuse to allow churches to be built in their area”. Meanwhile, in response to the statement: “Muslims are not allowed to send ‘Merry Christmas’ greetings or attend Christmas celebrations among Christians” 81 percent agreed.
Intolerance and conflicts have not only occurred between Muslims and non-Muslims, but also between Muslims and other Muslims.
In January 2009, for instance, a gathering in Cirebon aimed at commemorating the birthday of Sayyid Husein (the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad) was set upon by a group of 20 men wearing robes and riding motorcycles.
They demanded the gathering be disbanded, claiming that the celebration was influenced by Shiah and ran contrary to Islamic beliefs.
The other lesson is that dialogue, mutual understanding and religious tolerance still need to be promoted in this region. As an understanding that sees religion as something inseparable from worldly power and the use of religious symbols for political target, fundamentalism exists not only in the Muslim community but also in other religious communities, such as Hindu and Christian.
In daily life, even in secular states, mixing religion with politics is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid completely. This is because the public sphere is an area also of religious concern. Therefore, what is important is how to reduce the level of fundamentalism, so that its followers do not become extremist or radical.
Tolerance is the fruit of mutual understanding, while mutual understanding can be achieved through intensive dialogue. In this regard, respecting what is universally accepted as human rights is very important for Muslims as well as non-Muslims, so that there are no more stories of oppressed religious adherents in conflict with minority groups.
While we may agree that freedom of religion is not without limit, limitation of religious expression should be based on rational and indiscriminative consideration.
The writer is a lecturer at Sunan Gunung Djati State Islamic University (UIN), Bandung.