Excerpts from The Guardian, 10.11.2007

In Italy the mayors of Bologna and Genoa last month cancelled or delayed planning permission for mosques after a vociferous campaign by the far-right Northern League, one of whose leaders, Roberto Calderoli, threatened to stage a "day of pork" to offend Muslims and to take pigs to "defile" the site of the proposed mosque in Bologna.

This opposition is on a collision course with an Islam that is now the fastest-growing religion in Europe and which is clamouring for its places of worship to be given what it sees as a rightful and visible place in west European societies.

"The whole idea of having these huge mosques is about being part of Europe while having your religion," says Thijl Sunier, a Dutch anthropologist. "You have young Muslims showing their confidence, stating we are part of this society and we want our share. And you have growing anxiety among many native Europeans."

"We've got nothing against prayer rooms or mosques for the Muslims," he insists. "But a minaret is different. It's got nothing to do with religion. It's a symbol of political power."

Built form is a powerful representation of identity. In the Swiss village of Wangen, citizens are mobilizing against a Muslim meeting house that wants to erect a minaret. The meeting house (described as a nondescript house with a prayer room in the basement) is not a problem in and of itself. It’s (supposedly) fine with the mosque’s ethnically/historically Swiss neighbors for Muslims to meet and pray in their neighborhood. But they will not tolerate the 6-meter high minaret that has been approved…because it is un-Swiss. It’s a problem of representation. The majority of the village residents want their hometown to represent them and their identities which, having defined (or been defined by) the character of the village throughout living memory, they take to be quintessentially Swiss. They want no visible symbols of Islam in their hometown—or perhaps even their country—because Islam is not Swiss.

The article describes protestors’ (and legislators’) efforts to “keep [their] country culturally Christian.” Notable here is that keeping Switzerland Christian is not what matters so much as keeping it culturally Christian, which probably has less to do with religion than lifestyle. Again, it’s a problem of representation: people may believe whatever they wish to believe, but they need to blend into the perceived cultural landscape (which is in many ways a matter of visually blending in). Also of note is the implied claim to Switzerland as our country, not theirs. Muslims are the largest religious minority in Swizterland, but it is implied that they are still guests; they don’t belong there, and Switzerland is not (and never will be) their country.

Individual identity is closely linked to place. If a Swiss village no longer looks “Swiss” because its skyline is punctuated by a minaret, then the city’s historically Swiss residents may perceive the city as an inaccurate reflection of their personal identities, and when the city no longer reflects the individual, the individual looses some of his or her sense of place in the world. Thus, the built environment becomes a staging ground for deciding who belongs and who doesn’t.

1 comment:

bryan said...

This reminds me of a passage from Baudrillard's America. He argues that Americans are obsessed with sects more than the ideals those sects are symbolic of:

Tocqueville's central idea is that the spirit of America is to be found in its mode of life, in the revolution of mores, the moral revolution. This creates neither a new legality nor a new State, but it does create a practical legitimacy, a legitimacy grounded in the way of life. Salvation no longer has to do with the divine or the State, but with the ideal form of practical organization... The fact is that religion has become part of everyday life, which means that it can no longer be challenged or questioned as to its bases, since it no longer has transcendent values. This is religion as a way of life. p. 90