Monday, December 07, 2009

Turkey, and Swiss minarets

A couple of weeks ago was the craziest week of work I have had in years, I had to put in so much overtime it prevented me from updating my blog and informing everyone that for the upcoming Eid holiday I went to Turkey for a few days. My friend Serdar was there with his son and it was really great to meet up with them and do a few things off the beaten track in Istanbul.

I was staying in a nice boutique hotel in Sultanahmet which had an amazing rooftop restaurant/bar with a view of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. And ironically, while looking these amazing buildings, it was there that I heard about the decision by the people of Switzerland to ban further building of minarets.

Not tall buildings, not structures that the belong to religious institutions, just minarets. Why? Well because they represent Islam of course.

I find the decision truly sad. It is discrimination against a specific religious group, no more, no less. I find it somewhat inexplicable but take comfort that I cannot fathom such a thing happening in Canada. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is all too clear and the Supreme Court of Canada would throw out such a law on its butt.

Reading further it appears that Switzerland has a law that as long as a certain number of citizens (100,000?) signs a petition on a particular issue that it has to go to a referendum. A politician in Canada suggested implementing something like that once, and a comedy troupe quickly showed why that is a ridiculous idea. I guess Switzerland didn't see the show.

On the JREF forum there was a thread about it, and it surprised me the number of bigoted or ignorant comments that came forth on the issue from some people, though in defence of the posters most of them agreed that the Swiss decision was little more than discrimination and were quick to jump on the bigoted arguments. A Jewish contributor also pointed out the eerie parallels between what was happening now and the types of laws that were happening 70 or 80 years ago against Jews. I'm not sure he even needs to go back that far, any anti-Semitic conspiracy theories around the internet use similar scare tactics to try to paint Judaism negatively.

I did learn something though reading many of the comments -- many people in the West know little to nothing about Islam or the Islamic world, and it leads to a lot of misconceptions and prejudice. I'm not saying that the Islamic world is some kind of utopian paradise, but how will the real issues be addressed when they have to spend their time facing criticism on issues that for the most part are just based on misconceptions?

So, let me take a moment to lay on the table a number of items that seems to be commonly understood in the West -- but is plain wrong.

1) myth: Islam is a one-dimensional monolithic entity

Islam, like Christianity, is split into various sects and factions. Sunni and Shi'a are the ones that people are familiar with but even within those there are many different types, much like "Protestant" encompasses a large number of different groups in Christianity. There are Sufis, Wahhabists, Ismailis (that's the group headed by the Aga Khan) and so on. All are different, and even within those groups people practise their religion differently -- some are fundamentalist, some are moderate, and many do not go to the mosque much and like wine with their dinner. No different than Christianity. Or Judaism for that matter.

Remember, over two dozen countries have a majority Muslim population -- ranging from Morocco all the way to Indonesia, and the societies between these countries can vary dramatically. Turkey is very different from Saudi Arabia, which is different from Oman, which is different from Egypt, which is nothing like Malaysia, which is different from Pakistan and so on. I get tired of seeing statements about Islam or Muslims that implies that they all act the same, dress the same way, are all in agreement about how to deal with the West, and so forth.

I have been fortunate to travel in many Muslim countries in the last few years and can tell you the assumption that people in one Muslim country are the same as in another makes about as much sense as assuming that Peruvians and Italians are the same because they are both from Catholic countries.

2) myth: Muslims want to impose sharia law on everybody

First of all, which sharia law would that be? See item one above. Even in countries that do have sharia law it is imposed differently from country to country. No alcohol allowed in Saudi Arabia but I can get a drink in Qatar, and I've seen many Omanis in dishdasha at the bars in Muscat. A Muslim man approaching women he doesn't know and asking them out could get him in trouble in Qatar -- and maybe get him a date in Lebanon. Does anyone think Egyptian law is the same as Taliban Afghanistan? (If you do you need to travel more.)

Oh wait, is Lebanon under sharia law? Iraq? Malaysia? Azerbaijan? I know Turkey isn't. Hey, I think there might be countries, where the majority of the population is Muslim, who themselves don't impose sharia law! So why the myth that Muslims want to impose sharia on everybody?

Because most of the Muslims you hear about on the TV news or read in the newspapers are the fundamentalists who like sharia law. A Muslim group asking for a sharia law to be applied in family court in the UK gets headlines, 90+ percent of Muslims accepting UK family law does not get headlines. Taliban madrasas get airtime, Turkish women going to university to become lawyers do not. What is shown to people tends to bias them.

3) myth: all Muslim women are dressed head-to-toe in black with veils (or in burkas)

Boy people in the West love those Saudi women dressed head-to-toe in black abayas with veils. Anytime someone wants to portray Muslims in a bad light out come the photos of women in abayas, though Afghani women in burkas have become fashionable in the last few years as well.

Has anyone seen TV news reports about the Swiss vote? Hopefully it showed that wonderful campaign poster of minarets sticking out of the Swiss flag looking like missiles while in the foreground there is a woman in an abaya and veil. What the heck!?

Abayas are commonly worn by women in the Arabian Peninsula but it is only mandatory in Saudi Arabia, in other countries in the Gulf such as Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait it is not mandatory, and many local women do not wear veils. Non-local women, even if they are Muslim, are not required to wear abayas in Qatar. None of the Qatari ladies who work in my office wear veils, and I know a Bahraini woman in Qatar who does not even cover her hair. No one cares.

The Swiss poster seems to imply that Muslim women wear abayas, but if most abaya-wearing women are from Saudi Arabia does that mean most of the Muslims in Switzerland are originally from Saudi Arabia? I doubt it. In fact, if that JREF thread is on the mark, most Swiss Muslims are from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. Countries where women don't wear abayas. Heck, in Turkey a lot of them don't even wear headscarves.

Someone can feel free to correct me but here are the countries where you will commonly find local women with their faces covered:

Saudi Arabia
maybe the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain. (Iraq?)

I think that's it. No, not Iran, they do have a dress code for women but it does not include veils.

Well that does not actually represent a lot of people. Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia each have populations as big or larger than the entire list combined, yet no one seems to pull out pictures of Indonesian women when talking of Islam. If many Swiss Muslims are from Bosnia why didn't the Swiss poster show a European woman in a floral headscarf with no veil?


In summary, Muslim women with their faces covered represent a minority of the Islamic population, and even fewer of them where those black abayas we in the West are so fond of.

Man this is getting long and I still have a few more points to make! I think I will stop it here and continue in my next blog post.


Anonymous said...

What happened in Switzerland is representative of how total democracy works (otherwise known as the tyranny of the majority). Several states in the US have plebiscite laws and what are they used for? Things like banning gay marriage. A fair society always protects the rights of its minorities. Usually these must be anchored in a constitution that cannot be amended easily (although the UK has done quite well without one). If Switzerland were in the EU, they would not have been able to do this, as there are various EU Directives protecting minority rights. Where it gets dodgy is when interests conflict. Building a minaret harms no one and should not bother anyone. But what about the call to prayer at 4 am (or for that matter loud church bells at any hour). Can or should a society be able to prohibit it? They can and do, but does that step on peoples' rights? I note that the mosques in Switzerland did not broadcast the call to prayer, but the fear mongers pushing for the ban on minarets pushed the idea that there was a slippery slope, first minarets, then the call to prayer, then sharia law and who know what else.

sultanahmet said...

Sultanahmet is a great place.
And Blue mosque is a miracle.

Glen McKay said...

per the Swiss posters the slippery slope ends at every woman wearing abayas and niqab. Fearmongering nonsense.

Anonymous said...

You need to be aware of the laws of Dhimmitude. Ask the Egyptian Copts how they like living in a Muslim country, beaten and killed if they can't afford to pay the annual Jizyah.