The recent Swiss referendum that bans construction of minarets has caused controversy across the world. There are two ways to interpret the vote. First, as a rejection of political Islam, not a rejection of Muslims. In this sense it was a vote for tolerance and inclusion, which political Islam rejects. Second, the vote was a revelation of the big gap between how the Swiss people and the Swiss elite judge political Islam.
In the battle of ideas, symbols are important.
What if the Swiss voters were asked in a referendum to ban the building of an equilateral cross with its arms bent at right angles as a symbol of the belief of a small minority? Or imagine a referendum on building towers topped with a hammer and sickle – another symbol dear to the hearts of a very small minority in Switzerland.
Political ideas have symbols: A swastika, a hammer and sickle, a minaret, a crescent with a star in the middle (usually on top of a minaret) all represent a collectivist political theory of supremacy by one group over all others.
On controversial issues, the Swiss listen to debate, read newspapers, and otherwise investigate when they make up their minds for a vote.
What Europeans are finding out about Islam as they investigate is that it is more than just a religion. Islam offers not only a spiritual framework for dealing with such human questions as birth, death, and what ought to come after this world; it prescribes a way of life.
Islam is an idea about how society should be organized: the individual's relationship to the state; that the relationship between men and women; rules for the interaction between believers and unbelievers; how to enforce such rules; and why a government under Islam is better than a government founded on other ideas. These political ideas of Islam have their symbols: the minaret, the crescent; the head scarf, and the sword.
The minaret is a symbol of Islamist supremacy, a token of domination that came to symbolize Islamic conquest. It was introduced decades after the founding of Islam.
In Europe, as in other places in the world where Muslims settle, the places of worship are simple at first. All that a Muslim needs to fulfill the obligation of prayer is a compass to indicate the direction of Mecca, water for ablution, a clean prayer mat, and a way of telling the time so as to pray five times a day in the allocated period.
The construction of large mosques with extremely tall towers that cost millions of dollars to erect are considered only after the demography of Muslims becomes significant.
The mosque evolves from a prayer house to a political center.
Imams can then preach a message of self-segregation and a bold rejection of the ways of the non-Muslims.
Men and women are separated; gays, apostates and Jews are openly condemned; and believers organize around political goals that call for the introduction of forms of sharia (Islamic) law, starting with family law.
This is the trend we have seen in Europe, and also in other countries where Muslims have settled. None of those Western academics, diplomats, and politicians who condemn the Swiss vote to ban the minaret address, let alone dispute, these facts.
In their response to the presence of Islam in their midst, Europeans have developed what one can discern as roughly two competing views. The first view emphasizes accuracy. Is it accurate to equate political symbols like those used by Communists and Nazis with a religious symbol like the minaret and its accessories of crescent and star; the uniforms of the Third Reich with the burqa and beards of current Islamists?
If it is accurate, then Islam, as a political movement, should be rejected on the basis of its own bigotry. In this view, Muslims should not be rejected as residents or citizens. The objection is to practices that are justified in the name of Islam, like honor killings, jihad, the we-versus-they perspective, the self-segregation. In short, Islamist supremacy.
The second view refuses to equate political symbols of various forms of white fascism with the symbols of a religion. In this school of thought, Islamic Scripture is compared to Christian and Jewish Scripture. Those who reason from this perspective preach pragmatism. According to them, the key to the assimilation of Muslims is dialogue. They are prepared to appease some of the demands that Muslim minorities make in the hope that one day their attachment to radical Scripture will wear off like that of Christian and Jewish peoples.
These two contrasting perspectives correspond to two quite distinct groups in Europe. The first are mainly the working class. The second are the classes that George Orwell described as "indeterminate." Cosmopolitan in outlook, they include diplomats, businesspeople, mainstream politicians, and journalists. They are well versed in globalization and tend to focus on the international image of their respective countries. With every conflict between Islam and the West, they emphasize the possible backlash from Muslim countries and how that will affect the image of their country.
By contrast, those who reject the ideas and practices of political Islam are in touch with Muslims on a local level. They have been asked to accept Muslim immigrants as neighbors, classmates, colleagues – they are what Americans would refer to as Main Street. Here is the great paradox of today's Europe: that the working class, who voted for generations for the left, now find themselves voting for right-wing parties because they feel that the social democratic parties are out of touch.
The pragmatists, most of whom are power holders, are partially right when they insist that the integration of Muslims will take a very long time. Their calls for dialogue are sensible. But as long as they do not engage Muslims to make a choice between the values of the countries that they have come to and those of the countries they left, they will find themselves faced with more surprises. And this is what the Swiss vote shows us. This is a confrontation between local, working-class voters (and some middle-class feminists) and Muslim immigrant newcomers who feel that they are entitled, not only to practice their religion, but also to replace the local political order with that of their own.
Look carefully at the reactions of the Swiss, EU and UN elites. The Swiss government is embarrassed by the outcome of the vote. The Swedes, who are currently chairing EU meetings, have condemned the Swiss vote as intolerant and xenophobic. It is remarkable that the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, said in public that the Swiss vote is a poor act of diplomacy. What he overlooks is that this is a discussion of Islam as a domestic issue. It has nothing to do with foreign policy.
The Swiss vote highlights the debate on Islam as a domestic issue in Europe. That is, Islam as a set of political and collectivist ideas. Native Europeans have been asked over and over again by their leaders to be tolerant and accepting of Muslims. They have done that. And that can be measured a) by the amount of taxpayer money that is invested in healthcare, housing, education, and welfare for Muslims and b) the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who are knocking on the doors of Europe to be admitted. If those people who cry that Europe is intolerant are right, if there was, indeed, xenophobia and a rejection of Muslims, then we would have observed the reverse. There would have been an exodus of Muslims out of Europe.
There is indeed a wider international confrontation between Islam and the West. The Iraq and Afghan wars are part of that, not to mention the ongoing struggle between Israelis and Palestinians and the nuclear ambitions of Iran. That confrontation should never be confused with the local problem of absorbing those Muslims who have been permitted to become permanent residents and citizens into European societies.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of "Infidel," is the Somali-born women's rights advocate and former Dutch parliamentarian. Her forthcoming book is entitled "Nomad."
© 2009 Global Viewpoint Network / Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.