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How to breed fear and intolerance

April 19, 2011

The coming into force of the burqa ban in France last week sent me into a bit of tailspin which, in an act of masochism, I chose to exacerbate by reminding myself that the Swiss passed a similarly hateful law banning the construction of minarets (because the grand total of four minarets in the whole country was really starting to stress them out).  I don’t wish to rope you all into my efforts to self-harm by thinking about these issues, nor do I wish to taint the undoubtedly hilarious, light-hearted nature of this blog with a departure from my hysterically funny stories about life in Geneva. But, much like Charlie Sheen and his bizarrely wonderful fall-out with the makers of the worst television show ever made, I feel the pressing need to vocalise my thoughts in public. Unlike Charlie Sheen, however, I’ll leave aside the pressing issues of Vatican assassin warlocks, and try to keep it brief.

The world is going through a difficult period (though, let’s be honest, no difficult than those which preceded it) when we are trying to resolve the bundle of issues related to religion, conflict, wealth, environment, values, rights and poverty which we inadequately and ineloquently refer to as “the relationship between Islam and the West.” Resolving this relationship is neither an insurmountable obstacle nor a unique challenge, despite what the media and many governments, both in Arab and Western states, would have you believe. It is, however, an incredibly complex situation, one that will not be resolved through simplistic, over-reaching op-eds or sensationalist tabloid headlines.   Mutually acceptable and beneficial solutions are discoverable. However, discovering them will require some serious soul-searching, reconsideration of old attitudes and biases, and widespread realisation that the pressures of climate change, population growth and increasing inequality will necessitate a readjustment of our expectations about how much wealth and space and privilege we can expect in this world and can deplete without serious consequences.

I don’t know what the solutions are. But I will tell you what the solutions are not.

The solutions are not legislative measures that control what we wear and regulate the amount of skin we show. I don’t care what ridiculous justifications about public safety or the requirements of a society governments fabricate (nevermind the fact that, in the case of France, the number of women wearing the burqa is reportedly around 2000, which doesn’t seem to reflect an overbearing threat to public security) – the ban on wearing the burqua in public is the product of no more than the ignorance-born fear and distain that we feel when we see a veiled Muslim woman walking down the street. It is not a solution to make that which we do not like, or of which we are afraid, illegal. Doing so is no more than an updated version of that which the the South African government did to black South Africans during apartheid or the Nazis did to Jews in the 1930s and 40s. Let us not kid ourselves that hating Muslims because they are Muslims is any less reprehensible than hating black people because they are black or Jews because they are Jews.

One does not have to weigh in on the issue of whether or not it is right for women to be forced or to choose to wear a veil and the role of Islam in mandating or requiring that. That is a separate debate about religion which cannot be held in isolation of the unacceptable fact that women experience oppression in every facet of their lives and across every religion, culture,  and society in the world. Let’s have that debate too, but let’s remember what this debate is about – the extent to which we will allow our government to impose the fear of a few on the lives of many.

The solutions are not rules that make the practice, teaching or representation of a religion illegal. The ban of minarets in Switzerland is as breathtaking for its intolerance as it is for its stupidity. Around 22% of Swiss residents are foreigners,  and Switzerland hands out citizenship to about 50,000 people each year, at least half of which hail from predominantly Muslim countries such as Turkey.  By what twisted logic do the Swiss authorities imagine that barring part a religion or trying to hide its physical manifestations will foster greater community integration or social cohesion? Intolerance breeds intolerance. Marginalising and discriminating against Muslims will have no greater effect than to further entrench the community divisions from which intolerance is born.

If we believe in the rights of all people to believe and worship as they please, then we must put aside our fear and accept that Islam can have a place in “our” societies. To this end, the solutions will not be discovered if we believe that the problem lies in Islam itself. It is a clear reflection of our own isolation and ignorance and lack of real knowledge or understanding about Islam and its intricacies – to be short, the absence of Muslim friends and colleagues in the lives of a large majority of us – that we are so quick to generalise about a religious community, divided into around 20 different branches and groups each with their own interpretation of the religion, which encompasses around one and a half million people,  each of whom goes to school and university and work just like us, loves their parents and their children just like us, finds Charlie Sheen hilariously insane just like us. How many times do we have to tell ourselves that Muslims are not a homogenous culture until we believe it? Let’s have enough self-awareness and insight to know that our instinct to be terrified by the presence of Islam is no more than the result of our own ignorance or stereotyping or stigmatization of Muslims.

I’m not saying this is easy. Having lived through the events of the last decade and having been affected (willingly or unknowingly) by the fear-mongering our governments have partaken in since that time, we can all be forgiven for being a little afraid. But it is our challenge to overcome this fear within ourselves, and once we’ve done that, overcome it in each other. To this end, it is vital that we speak up at the dinner table or the pub or on the blog that no one even reads to do our own part to eradicate the fear-drive generalisations that we all have. Otherwise we become a society who bans and makes illegal and seeks to hide that which we are afraid of, and in doing so we will breed only more fear and more hatred and more intolerance.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. mskaydee permalink
    April 19, 2011 2:58 pm

    Couldn’t agree more. Check out graffiti artist JR’s excellent comment on the minaret ban, painted on a huge building just near Vevey train station

    • April 20, 2011 8:53 am

      I didn’t see this yesterday for some reason, but WOW that is really as awesome as you described. What an amazing guy.

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