Op-Ed: Swiss Ban On Minarets Intolerant Egyptian-born writer Mona Eltahawy urges Europeans to use the vote as an impetus to address long-simmering questions about how they treats immigrants. She also argues that Muslims must examine the bigoted policies of many of their own countries.

Op-Ed: Swiss Ban On Minarets Intolerant

Op-Ed: Swiss Ban On Minarets Intolerant

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121162994/121163116" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Egyptian-born writer Mona Eltahawy urges Europeans to use the vote as an impetus to address long-simmering questions about how they treats immigrants. She also argues that Muslims must examine the bigoted policies of many of their own countries.

Read Mona Eltahawy's op-ed for the Washington Post, "Europe's Call To Intolerance"


And now, the Opinion Page. Since Switzerland's vote last week to ban the building of minarets, worldwide reaction has been swift. The United Nations' Human Rights Committee called the vote discriminatory. Amnesty International described it as a violation of religious freedom. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Mona Eltahawy says those reactions are both valid and predictable, but that they masked a bigger and more troubling concern. The real issue, she says, is how Europe deals with long-simmering questions about how it treats its immigrants - all of them, not just Muslims. And she also argues that Muslims must examine their own biases against other religions.

We'd like to hear from the Europeans in our audience today. Did the Swiss vote surprise you? Would it have come out differently in other West European nations? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mona Eltahawy joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program with us today.

Ms. MONA ELTAHAWY (Correspondent, Washington Post): Hi, Neal. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: And according to what you write, you think the vote in Switzerland represents a backlash from people who feel they've not had a voice on the question of allowing Muslims or, indeed, other immigrants into the country?

Ms. ELTAHAWY: I think there's a much needed conversation that is not being had in Europe about immigration. And as you mentioned in the lead-in, it's not just about Muslim immigrants but non-Muslim immigrants. Europe is an aging continent that does not have enough babies, essentially. And so, you're seeing an influx of much needed immigrants who are doing jobs that need to be filled. But they're not talking about Europeans, generally, both Muslims and non-Muslim. I'm not talking about where these immigrants are coming from, what the cultural needs of those immigrants are, and how the so-called host community treats those immigrants. And unless that conversation takes place, you're going to find backlash from what I call the two right-wings: The non-Muslim right-wing, which voted for this ban on minarets, and the Muslim right-wing, which reacts to it in a very defensive way which, again, blocks any kind of conversation.

CONAN: And then it becomes a circular problem and a cyclical problem. The one right-wing votes and then the other right-wing reacts and then reinforces the other right-wing.

Ms. ELTAHAWY: Absolutely. Because, then, you get the non-Muslim right-wing saying, you see these people are just so closed in. And they didn't want to talk to anyone. And they just want to be live in these so-called ghettos. And then the Muslim right-wing says, you see, they hate us after all. The West hates Muslims. The West wants to destroy Muslims and we get all this talk about infidel. But they're not talking about how basically they need each other because you're talking about generations of immigrants who live in Europe.

You know, in Denmark - my nieces and nephews who are born in the United States are considered American. In Denmark, they would be called second-generation immigrant. So my question to Europeans is how many generations does it take to become a citizen and not an immigrant?

CONAN: It's interesting. And clearly, in Switzerland this was a symbolic vote. I think there are a total of four mosques with minarets currently in all of Switzerland and construction contemplated on just two more.

Ms. ELTAHAWY: Absolutely. And the minarets that do exist, those four, aren't even allowed to issue the call to prayer. So it's not even a, you know, a point of, oh, they make too noise five times a day.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ELTAHAWY: So exactly what were the Swiss people voting on? And interestingly, in the polls leading up to the referendum, most Swiss who were polled said they would not vote for this. So, again, it's one of these kind of issues of bigotry and racism that people are ashamed to admit, you know, out upfront. But only when they are, you know, hidden behind that polling booth curtain will they let these fears and discriminations out.

CONAN: Yet, it is a failure of democracy that this issue only comes up in this kind of a context. Nobody 20 years ago said: Should we relax immigration rules to allow more immigrants so that we would have a younger population to be able to continue to compete economically?

Ms. ELTAHAWY: Absolutely. It didn't happen 20 years ago and it's still not happening, which is why it's only in these, you know, quite bizarre circumstances - as we saw in Switzerland last week, where right-wing parties pushed for this kind of referenda - that you see these fears and the questions and defensiveness come up. Because I've heard from Europeans friends and analysts that what - if this question was put, you know, before Danes and Germans, they worry that they, too, would vote, yes, we should be ban minarets. It's only in - because of the kind of a particular make up of Switzerland that it went to a referendum. So the point of my op-ed was that Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe must have this very, honest and difficult conversation but away from bigotry and racism.

CONAN: Well, how then does that conversation go ahead outside the context of, obviously the very contentious and adversarial nature of a referendum?

Ms. ELTAHAWY: Well, I think - and call me biased because I'm Muslim and I live in the West - I think that Western Muslims are essential to this kind of conversation because I have countless friends in Europe, European Muslim friends, who feel excluded by both those right-wings. And they understand very well what it means to be a European Muslim who lives as both a European and a Muslim - those two identities are essential - without having to choose between the two, who are then able to turn to both sides, both those right-wings and say, you do not represent the majority of Muslims. The majority of Muslims in Europe do not go to the mosque. And the majority of Europeans in - that I've spoken to, you know, do not hold this bigoted, racist views. It's only when the conversation is not happening that essentially you find these fears, as I said, and discrimination come out behind, you know, the secrecy of the polling booth.

CONAN: And there is also the other side of this in talking to Muslims as well about their own difficulties and they're own right-wing.

Ms. ELTAHAWY: Absolutely. As a Muslim again, I challenge my fellow Muslims in Europe to, you know, to speak out louder. And many do, you know, to be fair. many do speak, but�

CONAN: Sure.

Ms. ELTAHAWY: �but they're not heard, to say to the Muslim right-wing that, you know, this is Europe. This is not, you know, Turkey or Egypt or Morocco five generations ago. Because, you know, what essentially has happened as well is that you find this kind of so-called Islam that is trapped in time that people think they're practicing that represents �home,� quote, unquote. So the question is, where is home? Is it home where your parents or your grandparents left, or is it home now? And if it's home now, are you being made to feel at home? And are you also making that effort to feel at home? Or are you constantly talking about going back? I know what that feels like because my family left Egypt when I was seven. So I know this, you know, the push and pull of immigration. But Muslims too need to speak out and say to the Muslim right-wing: You cannot speak for me. I, too, belong in this conversation.

CONAN: We're talking with Mona Eltahawy, a columnist and writer on Arab-Muslim issues. Her op-ed, �Europe's Call to Intolerance,� appeared in the Washington Post on the first of this month. There's a link to it at our Web site, that's at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION. We want to hear from Europeans or those who've lived in Europe in our audience today. Would this - does this vote in Switzerland to ban the construction of minarets surprise you? Would it have turned out differently in any other Western European country? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

And Louie's(ph) on the line from Orlando.

LOUIE (Caller): Hey, Neal. Excellent topic, and your guest sounds wonderful. I lived - I still go back and forth to Sweden. My wife is from Sweden. And I have seen Sweden change tremendously in the last 25 years since I've been going off and on there - much more racist since they started having massive amount of Iranian and Iraqi immigrants because of the Iran-Iraq War in the �80s. And I have dark skin and I've got to tell you, when I'm on the street in Sweden, the (foreign language spoken) get out, but it's - I speak Swedish with an accent. I think it's American, but they just hear: You're a foreigner. And if I start speaking in Swedish, I get like really disgusted looks by the working class, shopkeeper or whatever that's Swedish. And if I go: Well, excuse me, I'm from Orlando, Florida. Oh, you're American. I'm sorry. We didn't mean to be racist. You know, it's like I get a totally different, you know, reaction when I try to speak Swedish and I - they understand me, I know it. And then I say: Hey, look. I'm an American. You know, why are you being rude to me, in English. Then they go: Oh, well, I'm so sorry.

CONAN: Many people in Sweden, of course, speak English.

LOUIE: And you speak English. And the thing is, you know, they're about to elect for the first time a very right-wing, anti-immigrant party there. I think they're going to get elected in parliament this next go-around.

CONAN: Indeed. Do you think if this vote was held in Sweden, obviously, you're not�

LOUIE: No. I go online and I check out the, you know, Swedish radio Web site, and they did a poll. They said 25 percent would vote for the ban, which is still a lot, when you consider Sweden is supposed to be the leftist, utopic(ph), you know, country in Europe that has, you know, free ideals, and believe me, it's a sham. There is a lot of undercurrent of racism there.

CONAN: All right. Louie, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

LOUIE: Thank you.

CONAN: And again, polls can be deceptive. As our guest Mona Eltahawy pointed out, sometimes people will say one thing to a pollster, particularly on an issue as delicate as race, and then vote another way when she or she gets behind the curtain in the polling booth. Nevertheless, do you think this would have come out differently had it been in England or Britain, where two members of the fascist party were elected to the European parliament this year, or in France, which is considering a ban on the burqa?

Ms. ELTAHAWY: Was that question to me, Neal?

CONAN: Yes, it was.

Ms. ELTAHAWY: Yeah. Well, see, what's happening in the U.K. is, as you said, indicative of this, the ascendency of the right-wing essentially in Europe. You know, we hear almost every month, if not every other week, in the UK of protests, you know, so-called anti-Islam protests. At least 11 people were arrested over this just this past weekend at one such demonstration. The fact that the United Kingdom is sending two racist members of the British National Party to the European Parliament is dismaying. And so, again, you're having -you see it come out - just like the gentleman caller just said - there's an undercurrent there, everybody knows it's there, but no one wants to talk about it. And I think there's a feeling that if we talk about this, we will be fuelling the right-wing. I think the very opposite is happening. The more we don't talk about it, the more the right-wing portrays itself as the only people who care. We are the only people who care about our country. We are the only people who care about our values. Whereas there are many other decent people who live in those countries who are not heard because people say: Hush, hush, we can't talk about this because it's going to fuel the right-wing.

CONAN: And let's get another caller. David(ph) with us from Minneapolis.

DAVID (Caller): Yes. I personally object to the idea that this is a racist issue. I think it is a cultural issue. And as, you know, whatever immigrant moves into another country, that immigrant has to, in a very flagrant way, embrace the culture of that country - doesn't mean that that person has to embrace the religion, but as something just as simple as the minaret and the church steeple. These two are competing symbols. And even the sounds are so flagrantly different that for a person who has been used to church bells in the morning, and then suddenly is listening to the prayers - to the call to prayer coming from a minaret, it is a cultural clash. And I think this has much more to do with culture than it does with race.

CONAN: With culture and the immigrants' inability to assimilate, is that what you're saying?

DAVID: That - well, I think there's partial blame on both sides. But, you know, to have something as public as a minaret calling to prayer - and I know that's not happening in most of the minarets in Switzerland, but it is happening in other nations in Europe, and that just that sound in itself.

CONAN: Is so alien that, indeed, it should be prevented.

DAVID: Oh, I'm not saying it should be prevented, but there has to be a way of addressing the issue. And perhaps if they put up minarets, perhaps the call to prayer has to come on cell phones.

CONAN: Well, as we said earlier, in Switzerland, the minarets do not broadcast the call�

DAVID: That's right.

CONAN: �to prayer. But Mona Eltahawy?

Ms. ELTAHAWY: I would flip that question around to the caller just now and ask him how he feels about the millions of non-Muslim workers who live in many Muslim countries such as the Gulf, for example, because I mentioned Saudi Arabia in my op-ed. So, Saudi Arabia has basically been built on the shoulders of millions of non-Muslim workers from various parts of Asia. Do they deserve to have churches in Saudi Arabia? Do they deserve to have churches that also have bells that ring and have Christian symbols (unintelligible) on them? I believe they do.

But if I were to follow the logic of your caller, he would put a big question mark on that, which Saudi Arabia, in fact, is doing because Saudi Arabia bans the building of any houses of worship besides Muslim, and not just Muslim, but its very own particular brand of Islam, kind of a Salafi-Wahabbi Islam because (unintelligible) have their own problems.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ELTAHAWY: So this is a cultural flow that goes both ways. The race question comes in from the fact that parties like the Swiss People's Party have focused on race and not just religion and culture, because they take a racist view against immigrants generally. And I'm opening this up to a discussion of bigotry and race because it's not just about Muslims. But where culture comes in is what the caller said.

DAVID: And I heard that one�

CONAN: David, just hold on just a moment.


CONAN: We're talking on the opinion page with Mona Eltahawy about the reaction to the ban on constructions - the vote to ban construction of minarets in Switzerland. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And David, go ahead. I'm sorry.

DAVID: Yes. Yeah, just one thing. I mean, take for example in Norway, where in the early �60s, thousands of Pakistanis immigrated to Norway because of the huge labor shortage. And that relationship has been wonderful until it was - you know, it's fine even with - when the United States attacked Iraq. It went all to hell when the United States went into Afghanistan.

CONAN: All right. You might have those reversed. But anyway, David, thanks very much for the call. I want to give somebody else a chance.

Let's see, we go next to Gregory(ph). Gregory with us from Orlando.

GREGORY (Called): That is correct. Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead. You're on the line.

GREGORY: Well, I'm French and also American. I've lived many years in France and also lived many years in Saudi Arabia. Two things that I would like to bring up is when I lived in Saudi Arabia - I'm Catholic and we abided by the rules of Saudi Arabia. I think that Europe as a whole is making its own statement about what they want to protect. Now, if the religious choices of a country - like she said. She said, yes, Saudi Arabia does have issues, but I think that should be the focal point first, focus on the root. The root is Saudi Arabia and the three holy mosques, and they aren't allowing - and we didn't have any problems with it. We did what we had to do. That was the assumption, we abided by the rules.

CONAN: So, France should be as tolerant as Saudi Arabia?

GREGORY: No, France should just - France or Swiss, I mean, if that's the rules of the country, that's the rules of the country.

CONAN: And the people coming into the country should abide by them.

GREGORY: Exactly.

CONAN: And - so France or Switzerland should be just as intolerant as Saudi Arabia?

GREGORY: Well, if we want to change things, maybe not intolerant. I mean, it's - I don't - I mean, I lived and I've had many Saudi bosses and worked and lived there. It's not an intolerance, they're�

CONAN: They don't tolerate churches.

GREGORY: Correct.

CONAN: Okay. That's intolerance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREGORY: It's intolerance.

CONAN: Just by definition.

GREGORY: But that - right.

CONAN: Let's get a response from Mona Eltahawy.

Ms. ELTAHAWY: I have to totally disagree with your caller. I lived in Saudi Arabia for six years and I know Saudi Arabia very well. And I find it the most intolerant, bigoted place on earth. And as a Muslim, it shames me that Saudi Arabia is so intolerant, as I said, not just of non-Muslims, but of Muslims like me who do not follow its own brand of Islam.

So I - and I'm frankly appalled that Saudi Arabia is being used as a role model. If Europe wants to backslide and after all the - you know, we're constantly having this enlightenment thrown in our face - Muslims in West, you know, the enlightenment this, the enlightenment that, fine, I respect the enlightenment. I value the values of the enlightenment. But if you're going to then backslide against all those values of the enlightenment and start preaching about how Saudi Arabia is this and so we should be doing this because of Saudi, well, Saudi Arabia is not the model of the enlightenment. I'm frankly appalled by what your caller just said.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds with you left. And obviously, the United States has its own difficulties with Muslim minorities. Nevertheless, people here are better assimilated than they are in Europe. Do Europeans have something to learn from us?

Ms. ELTAHAWY: It's a very complex issue. We probably don't have time to go into it. I think, essentially, the United States is much more religious and respectful of religious values and symbols than Europe, that's number one. I think, number two also, the idea - immigration is - it has a much longer and much more tolerated history in the U.S. than in Europe. And thirdly, Muslims who come to the U.S. come from a very different background than Muslims who go to Europe, because European Muslims come from very often conservative backgrounds. So it's a very complex and quite different issue.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Ms. ELTAHAWY: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Mona Eltahawy writes on Arab-Muslim issues. She joined us from our bureau in New York. There's a link of her op-ed from the Washington Post on our Web site at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, a Copenhagen primer. What's at stake? The major themes and key divisions, plus the seduction of altitude and time, what have you bought from the SkyMall? Be with us tomorrow.

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News in Washington.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.