The Swiss vote against the construction of minarets has had Muslims the world over, and especially those in Egypt and the Arab World, up in arms against what they term as the Swiss curtailment of religious freedom. Amid the wide condemnation by the Egyptian media of the ban on building minarets, Watani decided to sound out the opinion of Egyptians who have taken up residence in Europe, as well as a number of human rights activists, on the issue.
Not intended to offend
Ezzat Boulos, who lives in Zurich and is editor-in-chief of the Copts United website, said that among the 400,000 Muslims living in Switzerland a minority were Egyptian. The latest vote banning the building of minarets was not intended to offend Islam, since the Swiss, he said, are reasonable, tolerant and have exceptional capabilities when it comes to self-restraint. “They never ask you about your religious faith, but they in no way accept religious interference in politics, Mr Boulos says. “The latest vote reflects a concern on the part of the Swiss people over the worrying escalation in political Islam throughout the past years.”
Mr Boulos says the Swiss still keenly remember the tragedy of 11 September 2001 and the furore that swept the Muslim world over the Danish cartoon affair a few years ago. Swiss tourists who visit Egypt notice the extremely loud noise emanating from the microphones in mosques. “All these factors give rise to grave concerns among the Swiss over the expansion of the Islamic tide, particularly in light of the calls for applying Islamic sharia law in their country,” he says.
Parallel to the veil
Amin al-Mahdi, an expert in political affairs, said the minaret issue had nothing to do with religion since minarets represent an architectural style introduced in the era of Ommayads. Thus the whole problem was artificial, similar to those of the veil and the niqab (face cover).
“I believe that oppressive states stand behind this fuss to play on the religious emotions of innocent people and divert attention from the repression they themselves suffer at the hands of those regimes,” Mr Mahdi says. “It has to be borne in mind that Muslim women from Bosnia and Herzegovina who live in Switzerland voted for the ban, because they fear the destructive impact of extremist thought on their lives, especially taking into account that these women immigrated in pursuit of a better and more decent life.” Mr Mahdi says the Egyptian regime pretends to defend religious freedom, not withstanding the fact that it violates the rights of religious minorities—including Copts and Baha’is. Even the Quranian group, he said, did not escape the oppression of the State since the group’s spiritual father, Professor Ahmed Sobhi Mansour, had to leave the county out of fear of being victimised. The question is: would Egypt allow the construction of a Hindu or Baha’i temple? Probably not.
Compared to Saudi and the Gulf
Bahie al-Din Hassan, the director of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies, said the vote banning the building of minarets was sorrowful. However, it had to be taken into account that those who cast their votes accounted for 50 per cent of the Swiss people, and 57 per cent of them said “Yes” to the ban, and thus those who supported the ban were in fact only 30 per cent of the population. “The way the Egyptian media dealt with the issue is terrible,” he said. “Media outlets directed a barrage of criticism against the Swiss people and government, despite the Arab World##s poor record in terms of freedom of faith.” He pointed out that in Saudi Arabia there were no places of worship for non-Muslims, and the Gulf States refused to allow a temple for Hindu workers, however great their number.
“As for Egypt, the picture is no less gloomy. The restoration of churches—not to mention the building of new ones—is becoming more and more difficult. State discrimination against Copts in terms of building places of worship has conveyed a message that Copts are second-class citizens who have no right to build a church or perform prayers in a house. Hence, Muslims see a green light to attack Copts whenever a rumour is circulated over an intention to build a church or transform a house into a place of worship. “The way the media tackled the Swiss ban will pour oil on the fire and mobilise ordinary Muslims against Copts,” Mr Hassan said.
The liberal intellectual and Coptic activist Adel Guindy, who resides in France and is editor of Watani International’s page 4, says the absence of minarets in Switzerland has no impact whatsoever over the freedom of faith. Among the country’s 200 mosques, only four have minarets. “All over Europe most mosques have no minaret,” he says. “None of us ever heard any complaint that the absence of minarets is a violation of principle of human rights.”
Indeed, many Egyptians are turning a blind eye to the fact that the Swiss people are concerned over the unwillingness of large groups of Muslim migrants to integrate themselves within European societies. Although the head of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland appealed to Muslims of the world not to interfere in this issue in order not inflame the argument, some Egyptians have taken the incident as an opportunity for demagoguery and fanaticism. Yet such an exaggerated reaction would prove to Europeans that the latest move was in the right direction. What is rather astonishing is the schizophrenic attitude of some people in Egypt. Suddenly they have risen in defence of Muslim rights in a European country, although they show no respect for the rights of their fellow citizens in Egypt to have places of worship and perform their own prayers. The situation has now reached the point where even the building of Coptic-owned homes is now a problem, since the security apparatus may order their demolition on account that they may be used for worship in the future. “I wonder why a major government-run newspaper does not say a word about the frequent criminal practices against Copts, while they have no problem with publishing a dozen articles against the Swiss ban,” Mr Guindy says.
What about Copts?
Farida al-Naqash, editor in chief of Al-Ahali newspaper, the mouthpiece of the left-leaning Tagammu Party believes that “although the move of banning the construction of minarets is no good sign, Egyptian government has no right to protest against the Swiss ban given the fact that this government itself placed restrictions on Copts’ religious rights. The government has to genuinely respect citizenship rights and allow for the passage of the long-awaited unified law of building places of worship”.
Ahmed Sameh, head of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, questioned the double standards. “Although the Egyptian government places obstacles in the way of religious freedom for Copts and Baha’is, it calls on the Swiss government to respect human rights. I find no point in that,” he says.
The head of Egyptians against Religious Discrimination, Mounir Megahed, said that although the Swiss parliament had banned minarets, such a ban did not violate the freedom of faith. The Egyptian government adopted even worse measures, including the prevention of the installation of crosses on top of churches and placing restrictions on the restoration of Coptic places of worship. “Such duality reflects a defect in terms of how we perceive religious freedom,” he said.
Writer and journalist William Wissa, who lives in Paris, said that although he thought the ban was a bad sign, there was no question of comparison between religious freedom enjoyed by Muslims residing in Switzerland and those enjoyed by Egypt’s Copts. “The state of freedom of faith in Egypt is now even far worse than it used to be,” he said. “Now it has become more difficult for Copts to practise their religion. The State and media outlets remain tight-lipped over the discrimination against Copts in this respect. The Humayouni edict still governs the building of Copts’ places of worship.”
Doing the job
Amr al-Shobaky, an expert with the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies said that what happened in Switzerland and what happens in Egypt deserved to be condemned. But all the parties should refrain from using double standards. “The Egyptian government should not indulge in criticising the Swiss ban, and it should let human rights organisations do this job,” he suggested.
Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi, member of the Islamic Research Academy, said that the minaret is not an essential component of prayer. He added, however, that “The Swiss move reflects discrimination against Muslims and incites hatred against them. But it should be admitted that practises by some Muslim extremists living in European countries have, in the first place, created fear among the people there.”