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Thursday December 3, 2009

What minaret vote says to the world

The referendum to ban minarets adds yet another vexatious obstacle to the work of peacemakers.

ON the surface, the outcome of the Swiss vote banning minarets is an issue of architecture, not religion. Minarets can be beautiful. Islam is known for inspiring outstanding architecture.

The Taj Mahal in India, considered the world’s most beautiful building, has four minarets. They are part of mosques built around the world, and the concept of the minaret has been designed into noteworthy non-Muslim architecture.

But there is nothing in Islam that requires a minaret. While it is a norm of mosque design, some of the most important mosques in the Muslim world don’t have them.

In a time before watches, Muslim architects conceived of the minaret. An imam’s often haunting call from high in a minaret told the faithful the time for prayer. Today we have many ways to tell time and even programmes on our cell phones to call us when it’s time to pray.

Beneath the surface is a greater issue than architecture. Minarets are a symbol of Islam just as church steeples are a symbol of Christianity. A minaret on the skyline says a substantial number of Muslims live nearby.

Anti-immigrant, right-wing Swiss populists launched the referendum, which passed with more than 57% of the vote. The outcome says a lot about how Western Europeans feel about the growing number of Muslim immigrants, who live as second-class citizens.

We should commend the Swiss government, which opposed the ban and says the vote has nothing to do with the free practice of Islam in Switzerland.

This vote will only stir up anti-Western feeling in the Muslim world right when reconciliation and understanding are sorely needed. It adds another obstacle to the work of peacemakers.

Religious freedom is essential for achieving peace. Right-wing Swiss populists are no more at fault than right-wing Muslims, who in recent years have become much more rigid in rejecting the free expression of religion in Muslim countries.

Peace will come only when Westerners and Muslims alike understand that religious freedom and respect for human dignity are at the core of their spiritual beliefs.

This article first appeared in the Newsweek/Washington Post ‘On Faith’ website. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, an independent, non-partisan and multi-national project that seeks to use religion to improve Muslim-West relations. (www.cordobainitiative.org) He is the author of ‘What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right With America’.

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