Readers comment on UN Watch’s New York Times letter on Swiss minaret ban

Letter to the Editor, The New York Times, December 19, 2009:

Re “Europe’s Minaret Moment,” by Ross Douthat (column, Dec. 7): We, part of the Geneva human rights community, are particularly embarrassed by Switzerland’s vote to ban minarets and will work energetically toward its speedy repeal.

Paradoxically, the most intolerant Islamists are likely to be strengthened by this act of bigotry, not weakened. Acts of intolerance by Western countries provide justification for banning religious freedom in Muslim countries.

These efforts have found expression at the United Nations Human Rights Council, where an Algerian-headed committee is advocating changes to an international covenant on discrimination to grant Islamic governments free rein to silence dissenters in the name of a supposed human right against “defamation of religion.” But questioning or criticism of Islamic orthodoxies by individuals – religious dissenters, human rights activists or journalists – is protected speech, and an essential part of religious and political freedom.

What a pity that Switzerland’s minaret folly – which, at the least, discourages religious expression by individuals – may end up hurting non-Muslim minorities in the Mideast as well as liberal Muslims. The overt banning of Muslim structures by a government is wrongful discrimination.

Hillel C. Neuer
Executive Director, U.N. Watch
Geneva, Dec. 11, 2009


7 Responses to “Readers comment on UN Watch’s New York Times letter on Swiss minaret ban”

  • Dear UN Watch,

    I have just returned from Ethiopia and in particular from the city of Axum.

    Axum is a key religious city in Ethiopia. Axum is said to be the location of The Ark of The Covenant which is housed in a special shrine attached to the Church of St. Mary of Zion.

    I last visited Axum fifteen years ago. My two co-travellers then were fellow members of the Anglo-Ethiopian society. Through these colleagues, who were prominent members of Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service, I got to meet the then Bishop of Axum.

    He told an interesting story. He said that the previous week, the Muslim Imam had come to visit him. The Imam asked for a mosque. The Bishop replied that he thought it was a very good idea as there was no mosque in Axum

    The Imam thought therefore that the matter had been cordially and affirmatively settled.

    In a move reminiscent of the famous detective, Colombo, the Bishop
    apprehended the Imam just as he got to the door as he was leaving.

    “Oh, just one thing, Imam”

    “Yes, Bishop”

    “I take it will be alright for us to have an Ethiopian church in Saudi. There are many Ethiopians, as you know, in Saudi”.

    “I understand what you are saying” said the Imam and left without complaint.

    As I have indicated, fifteen years have passed since this first visit. I was eager to find out whether there is now a mosque in Axum.

    There is still no mosque in Axum.

    The moral is quite clear. Tolerance should be mutual and reciprocal. When tolerance is just “one-way”, it is treated lightly and without respect – seen, perhaps, as a sign of weakness, maybe to be taken advantage of.

    This may be the most important lesson that western democracies have yet to learn.

    G. Ben-Nathan

  • (The following letter was sent to the New York Times in response to their Dec. 1 editorial.)

    Re : “Editorial : A Vote For Intolerance,” December 1, 2009

    On November 29, 2009, Swiss citizens voted in support of an amendment to their Constitution to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland. The hope expressed that, if the ban is challenged “… the Swiss courts will find a way to get rid of it”, reveals the Times’ ignorance as to Swiss constitutional law. Not only was the popular vote decisive, but, additionally, twenty two of the country’s twenty six cantons supported the ban. In view of this double majority, under Swiss law, repeal by a subsequent referendum would require another double majority, i.e., more than fifty percent of the popular vote and the votes, canton by canton, not unlike the Electoral College in the U.S. There is no provision under Swiss law for a “court challenge”.

    I strongly agree that “…the vote carries a strong and urgent message for all Europe” which only recently has reacted in France to burkas worn by Muslim women; in the Netherlands where Geert Wilders’ candidacy for the premiership has gained traction, in the Scandinavian countries where Muslim immigrants have burdened the social welfare systems as well as in other E.U. member states that have shown pervasive opposition to Turkish membership in the Union. In voting as they did, the majority of Swiss showed that they, too, finally got the message that the spread of Islam across their borders presents a threat worth recognizing even symbolically in the matter of minarets.
    Steven J. Stein*

    * I am a US lawyer resident in Geneva from time to time where I am counsel to a Swiss law firm. I am also the liaison of the American Bar Association to the United Nations in Geneva. The views expressed above are my own and not those of any organization or firm of which I am a member.

  • I am of the opinion that what the Swiss voted for, “to ban the further building of minarets” was a democratic process.

  • Bs”d

    The response by Ben-Nathan makes much sense to me.

    A distinction should be made between, say the burka, and the minarets. Minarets are not just one more feature of a religious building. They are intentionally a sign of religious dominion in the area. Over the centuries, Jewish and Christian places of worship in a Muslim area could certainly not be higher that the Muslim places of worship; also, new Jewish and Christian religious structures could not be built, nor old ones repaired (at least according to what I read about the Covenant of Omar with dhimmis; also, some Muslim countries were more lax about the implementation of these laws than others). These laws were intended to ingrain in Jews the conviction of the truth of Islam and its teaching.

    Of course, just like the Muslim building has its minaret, the Church has its steeple. I remember being told that likewise in Christian areas, Jewish places of study and synagogues could not be higher than the Church.

    This is where Ben-Nathan’s comments come in. Under Jewish law (with many more particulars I am sure, like everything else in the Halacha) Churches / Mosques etc. cannot be higher than Jewish places of worship, in an area of Jewish control, i.e. the little area of land known as Israel. However, Judaism has a universal outlook without a program of imposing Judaism on non-Jews. Even in the days to come, when Jews will have a king and a rabbinic high court in the Land, and a Temple, non-Jews will not become Jews. This is a very important point, because it shows the difference between the Jewish laws of the height of a synagogue and those for churches and mosques.

    The height of the mosque or church is not just a theological statement of pride, it is a deep-seated form of psychological pressure. Christianity, because has a universal outlook, borrowed perhaps in part from the universal nature of the Greek philosophies (‘absolute truths’) and certain feelings of similarity among the different peoples of the Roman empire (see what Gibbon says about the similarities between the polytheisms). Islam, especially, through its focus on the unity of God (and the instinct for conquest), has a universal outlook that is obligatory on all of mankind. It is most Christians’ belief and perhaps obligation, in way or another, to spread this message of truth to mankind through love, even if it meant persecution. So, too, with Islam, it is most Muslims’ responsibility (depending on how relaxed they are about these older laws) to be God’s troops, so to speak, in shouldering the responsibility of spreading the message of God’s unity in the world, by in fact unifying it under one system.

    Only under limited conditions is this Jewish law about the height of religious structures implemented (it might not apply to mosques, since the Jewish rabbis agree that Islam is definitely not a form of polytheism, while some elements of Christianity, among some Christians, are taken from polytheistic philosophies, e.g. the trinity itself). And therefore (this being the concluding point of all that which was presented above), even if in the future their will be certain situations under which the law of ‘Jewish superiority’ will take effect, it would not consist of psychological pressure, since outside of their limited space (and time and other conditions), Jews do not and may not make any open statements at all about the religions around them, even if they are definite, hardcore forms of paganism. (Of course, the ‘religions’ of the philosophers, the secularist, etc. can be argued with openly, since they themselves are the product of and exist under regular intellectual debate).

    This being said, the minaret today must be analyzed to determine if it is merely an older symbol of religious structures, or if it is a subtle statement of religious superiority, which under different conditions would be a source of powerful psychological oppression. This certainly differs from country to country and from Muslim community to Muslim community.

    Swiss voters who, in their vote of opposition, want a feeling of Swiss nationality without large obvious majorities – this could be criticized (although on the other hand, a totally homogeneous humanity will always remain as an ideal and never be fully realized; groups of people do need to assert a certain uniqueness peculiar to them, as long as it doesn’t become arrogant, exclusionary, or oppressive). However, if there were voters who felt this psychological pressure and in their vote were opposing it, they did well.

    It could further be argued that even the burka points to a desire by classical Islam that even dhimmi women be dressed in such a manner; and that this in turn pressures non-Muslim women and makes them feel uncomfortable. Certainly the burka issue in France, it it could be looked at from this perspective, once again would have no connection with Jewish men wearing head coverings and Jewish women covering their hair.

    Today, the West is in a precarious situation. It is already seventy years since the start of the Holocaust. When the Jews were exiled from Israel two-and-a-half millennia ago, they remained in Babylonia and Persia for only seventy years before they were recalled and rebuilt the Temple. But this period of time was long enough to cause great confusion to the Jews, some of which was not reversed with the return to Israel and the Second Temple. How fresh is the Holocaust and its lessons in our minds? Most survivors are not longer alive. My rabbi (shli”ta, may he live for many good years) is a survivor, though not of the camps. He and his family were nearly burned alive in a synagogue when the Germans first came through Poland. He later caught the last train out of German Poland (crammed to overflowing with people desperate to get out before the border was closed). When he and his friends would not become Communists, the Soviets sent them to Siberia, where he spent the rest of the war. He is a survivor of both the nazis and the soviets, and regularly speaks of his experiences in our synagogue, when it is appropriate. There are not many like him from the ‘old world’ who remain.

    Where does the West stand today with regard to the terrors of the Holocaust? Will in fact European tensions with Islam lead – intentionally or unintentionally – to the type of “country “x” only for the “x’s” ” nationalistic spirit of the inter-war period and that culminated under the nazis (y’mach shemama v’zichram l’netzach, their name and memory is dissolved and erased forever)? Is the violent recoiling from the causes of the Holocaust still vivid? Or is it a valid struggle out of the pitfalls of the secular spirit and post-modernism, seen especially through increasingly smaller natural reproduction rates in Western countries?

    Both possibilities are alive, and time will tell.

  • (The following letter was sent to the New York Times.)

    To the Editor:

    In a “Swiss Ban on Minarets,” Mr. Hillel C. Neuer, Executive Director, UN Watch, calls a free expression of Swiss voters as “a minaret folly” and “wrongful discrimination.” Mr. Neuer seems to prefer appeasing what he calls “the most intolerant Islamists.” Appeasing the deranged or the intolerant does not work. It did not work with Hitler’s Germany, and as of now it has not worked in dealing with North Korea and Iran. As long as the Koran teaches Muslims that Christians and Jews have no legal rights and lists them as socially three steps below Muslim men, two steps below Muslim women, and one step below slaves, there is no prospect of coming to an understanding with fundamentalist Muslims.

    Mr. Neuer fails to mention that there is no Swiss ban on the building of mosques, nor does he mention the fact that minarets in Switzerland only serve a symbolic function. Existing Swiss laws forbid church spires to be used to call the faithful to prayer, Christians, Muslims and others alike. A number of Muslim countries do not allows the building of churches, and it seems to me that the Swiss are thus fairly tolerant. I believe that the Swiss have every right to ban purely symbolic structures, in the same spirit that they can ban the display of, say, the Swastika.

    I would like to ask Mr. Neuer how many Christian churches in Muslim lands were burnt or bulldozed in 2009 alone. I am sure that UN Watch has this information handy. In his opinion, what would happen if the Swiss bulldozed a mosque on Swiss soil?


    Hans Neukomm

  • regarding the comment of Mr.Hillel, an UnWatch director, to the swiss ban on minarets, i wonder why this is a folly to ban them on swiss soil? why should they allow a foreign “culture” to gain more and more ground in their proper nation? Islam has not brought one positive aspect to the swiss. why should they embrace it.
    on the contrary i would like that the swiss would ban many more things, pornographic content in public advertisement, smokeing in restaurant, and the presence of the corrupt UN in Geneva.
    unfortunately the swiss elite in the government is ashamed of the minaret ban, they would have preferred to represent a progressive nation. i am much more ashamed (as a swiss) for the governments negative behaviour towards Israel.

  • Just to agree with many things said above.

    1. The Swiss DID NOT ban mosques, they did ban minaretes taller than churches
    2. No arab muslim country (may be except Egipt, with a large Koptic minority) allows for the building of churches or synagoges, and in general they are completely non-tolerant of any non islamic for of faith (I am a non beliver, but I strongly support peoples’ right to proffess their own faith)
    3. I wonder what changes the western world will face when arab oil is exhausted…

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