Towers of Silence

Swiss women struck at the minarets because, with the stifling dominance of liberal discourse, it's impossible to strike at anything else

The widespread outrage at the result of the Swiss referendum on banning new minarets is misdirected. Like the man in the old joke who was looking for his lost keys where the pavement was best lit and not where he had dropped them, international public opinion directs its condemnation not where it is due but where it feels safe. 

The obvious scapegoat is the purported Swiss right-wing extremism and “Islamophobia”. Those who voted against more minarets are pictured as xenophobic, intolerant or, at best, ignorant. It is uncomfortable to consider their motives and possibly arrive at the conclusion that they are not all that sinister. In the context of this witch-hunt it is sobering to present the arguments of a Swiss feminist, Julia Onken. It was her last-minute email campaign that helped to swing the vote in favour of the ban. 

Onken, the author of best-selling psychology books, is not your typical flag-waving nationalist, yet she chose to support the anti-minaret campaign. While her assertion that “the minarets are masculine symbols of power” was widely ridiculed by the Swiss and international press, the concerns underlying it are serious. Her principal concern is the patriarchal nature of shariah, which makes Swiss Muslim women second-rate citizens in their own country. For Onken, minarets are a symbol of the state’s acquiescence in the barbaric practices to which some Muslim women are still subjected, such as honour killings, forced marriage or domestic confinement. As long as these stand, minarets should not.

But why strike at the minarets? Onken’s answer is: because we cannot strike at anything else. Paradoxically, the liberal discourse of the open society has become so dominant that it stifles all dissenting views. It has become impossible, she believes, to speak up about encroaching patriarchy and the oppression of Muslim women without being branded as a xenophobe. 

President Nicolas Sarkozy, the only European leader publicly to embrace the Swiss vote, called on all religions to respect the “social and civic pact”.

The Swiss vote is not an expression of ignorance or intolerance but of a powerful need to be heard on the part of those who are worried about the changing nature of their societies. The outrage, therefore, should not be directed at the voters. Instead, it should be directed at those who force multiculturalism on society without regard to the attitudes of the wider public and without considering their legitimate concerns. 

We cannot defend the rights of one group by limiting the rights of others. We are not going to give Muslim women a voice by taking it away from the muezzin. Yet we can take the referendum result for exactly what it is: not a far-Right victory, but a cri de coeur of all those who feel ignored and silenced in their own countries in the name of political correctness.

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