December 2, 2009

The white cross and the minarets

Voters in Switzerland passed on Sunday with 57.5% of the vote a referendum banning the construction of minarets on mosques. Of course the referendum could have repercussions throughout the continent. In Italy, for instance, the anti-immigrant Northern League celebrated the surprising result with glee. “The forest of minarets, a dangerous symbol more of the threat of Islamic terrorism than a place of prayer, won’t change the countryside of the ancient fatherland of federalism and of freedom,” exulted Mario Borghezio, an exuberant Northern League member of the European Parliament. “Switzerland forever white and Christian,” he added.

As such extemporaneous comments show, along with some of the posters that were used to promote the ban (see here to get an idea), although the vote no doubt reflects fears of extremism, it also seems to be intended to be a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture. But the issue is more complex and involves a lot more than what all the European Borghezios could ever imagine.

That’s why, soon after reading a superb piece by Vittorio Messori—the first journalist in history to publish a book-length interview with a Pope, the best-selling Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), and the author of Jesus Hypothesis (1976)—in last Monday’s Corriere della Sera, I thought it was better to call upon him to speak here, too. So, once again I emailed Mirino and asked him whether he was willing to undertake the task to translate the article from Italian into English. His answer was “Yes” (thank you so much, my friend!), and below is the result.

[By Vittorio Messori, Corriere della Sera, November 30, 2009]

The white cross against the red background of the flag (square, like that of the Vatican, not rectangular) is seen everywhere in Switzerland. It’s an omnipresent landmark, an unrenounceable sign of identity of the 26 states, subdivided in 23 cantons, where there are four official languages, where the Catholics cohabit with the Protestants of many churches and confessions, and where being non-conform with the majority is traditional.

The cohabitation has not been always idyllic, and even during the “papist” mid XIX century, Calvinists, Zwinglians and Lutherans were up in arms against each other. Serious affairs, even between Christians who pray to the same God and read from the same Bible. Priests against Pastors: a war, but within the family. Thus, the cross of the flag has been able to continue to represent the whole of that which—to integrate the diversity of language- on postage stamps and currency—defines itself in Latin as “Confederatio Helvetica.” And the bell towers of the Catholic churches as those of the Protestants, have always marked the urban scenes as romantic, mountain landscapes.

Also because of this the outcome of the referendum—called not so much against the Islamic places of cult as against the manarah, the “beacon” in Arabian, the minaret that signals the places of Muslim prayer—is a meaningful statement. Borrowed from the Christians, replacing the belfry-stage with the little balcony for the muezzin who five times a day psalms the Koran inviting Muslims to prayer, the minaret is an essential part of the mosque. It’s the sign of the Islamization: when the Turks captured the desired prey, the venerated Saint Sofia of Constantinople, making the revered place immediately “theirs” leaving the interiors almost intact, only removing the abhorred human images from the walls and the domes, but surrounding it with four, very high “beacons.”

It was really against this significance that the Helvetic Confederation seems to have voted, to the disappointment of Christian hierarchies. This sort of compendium, the synthesis of history and European culture, planted in the heart of the Continent, where the two great roots cohabit, Latin and Germanic, said No. No to the explicit cohabitation, already perceptible at a glance, of the cross with the crescent moon, of the bell tower with the minaret. The white mountains, the green valleys, the blue lakes have nothing to do with the deserts and the steppes where, held back at the sound of the sword, the Mohammedists broke through so many times. (And the Helvetic armies played their part). Now they move silently but implacably to gain new conquests, crossing frontiers often illicitly.

Switzerland only confirms the “the siege complex” which is spreading itself increasingly across Europe. Something like the alarm signaling the approach of the Barbarians that marked the last centuries of the Roman Empire. Perhaps there must be something positive in this, despite the disapproval of the bishops: above all, in the rediscovery of our civilization and culture, the refusal of that “inexplicable self-hatred that has characterized the West for so long,” to use the words of Joseph Ratzinger when he was still a Cardinal and reminded the Europeans that in their history, light, in spite of everything, prevails over shadow. But in this alarm there is also something unreasonable: it’s not realistic, in fact, to think that, diluted between us, Islam remains itself. We tirelessly repeat that the observance of the Koran is already corroded, and it will become increasingly so from our vices and our virtues, our venom and our grandeur. A new Lepanto won’t be necessary: our everyday life will be enough, for better or worse, in order to remove the strength from an archaic, legalist faith, incapable of facing the challenges not only of hedonism and of rationalism but also, it goes without saying, of the twenty centuries of Christianity that have permeated Europe.


  1. Naturally such a democratic decision would be considered unreasonable if the majority living in Switzerland were Muslims. But this is not the case, not just yet. It would be difficult to imagine or accept a 'muezzin' psalming from his minaret in any part of Switzerland, if not anywhere else in Europe. Perhaps the privilege of communication between the mountain peaks of Switzerland should be left more to the care of the yodellers.

    But naturally such a decision is bound to create other sound waves from the venerable defenders of Islam. It's easier and far less courageous to attack European democracies than condemn those directly responsible for giving Islam such a bad name during the last 20 years. Perhaps the Grand Mufti would have earned more of the world's respect if he, as an important authority of Islam, raised his voice not against Switzerland, but against the fundamentalists who blindly kill, maim, rape and plunder in the name of Islam. They are far more infidel, blasphemous and condemnable than a democracy that exercises its rights in a normal and civilised way.

  2. Democracy is the rule of the majority, with some limits. One of these limits is that the majority should not take away the freedom of religion of minorities.

    In this case, though, I don't know how much the freedom of religion of Muslims is reduced. I read somewhere that the total number of minarets built in Switzerland is currently four, while the number of mosques is probably much larger, so perhaps the minarets are not so necessary after all.

    However, I disagree with some of Messori's points: if I understood well, his reasoning is the following: the Swiss have an hard-won religious peace and tolerance, but they choose not to extend it to the Muslims, an historical enemy. This, according to Messori, could be a good thing, as a rediscovery of our civilization; but it's also unnecessary, since the fundamentalism will be diluted by our secular society and our 20 century of Christianity.

    I think his conclusions are both wrong: I don't see how the Swiss reaction to a feared islamization could lead to a rediscovery of our own civilization, nor I see how the contact with the "Christian-permeated" Europe might remove the strength from fundamentalism; to the contrary, it seems that the second- and third-generation Islamic immigrants are more fundamentalist than the first-generation ones.

  3. Let's assume, as StenfanoC seems to believe, that Islamic fundamentalism is generally increasing. If this means an assumed right to impose, even forcefully, (as the Taliban rabidly try to do) whatever version- even corrupt- of Islam considered 'appropriate', according to whether one is Sunnite, Shiite, or whatever other sectarian, Islamic community, then the Swiss decision would be as wise as it would be logical.

    Regarding Messori's conclusions, I don't believe that such a reaction would be limited to Switzerland, and I agree with his conclusion that Europeans seem to be waking up to certain realities and beginning to appreciate all the more their identity, relative freedom and civilised tolerance, thanks to European history and European, religious evolution.

    We should stop feeling responsible for religious extremism. We didn't create it. There is also a limit to turning the other cheek. This can only be done if one has the freedom to do so, and preferably if it's going to produce a positive effect.

    This means that any new regimes and conditioned generations of Islam that wish to return to the thirteenth century, are not going to succeed easily in their rehashed Crusader war. Europe is far too old and experienced in the matter, and our magnificent medieval Churches and Cathedrals are still standing, despite so many hard fought wars.