Monday, November 30, 2009

Europe's Choice: Switzerland or Serbia?

Julien Frisch is very upset about the Swiss referendum banning minarets.

I disagree.

Julien says that a ban on minarets goes against the values of liberty, democracy and Europe. Now, I've said this before on AnTyx, but I'll say it again: as someone born in the Soviet Union, grown up in 90s Eastern Europe and now living in the EU, I think I can speak about democracy and freedom with some degree of authority. And there is an absolute, fundamental, irrefutable tenet of freedom:

Your freedom stops at the tip of my nose.

Switzerland did not ban Islam. Switzerland did not ban mosques. (And though I won't dwell on it, let's not forget that neither minarets nor even mosques are vital to the practice of Islam, that is a big part of why it's managed to thrive.) A minaret by its very intention is a thing that imposes itself on its surroundings. Not just architecturally, but socially: it exists as a platform for a cleric to call people to prayer. Five times a day, it saturates the neighborhood with sound that is unequivocally dogmatic. On that fact alone, a ban on minarets is entirely in line with European values of tolerance and coexistence. A secular state, particularly a European state, is obligated to protect its citizens from imposition of religion against their will.

I could leave it at that, but I won't. If there's a central message to everything I write on AnTyx, it is that you must know both cause and pretense; that you must not get bogged down in disingenuous arguments adopted by all sides because they are not willing to admit - often to themselves - what exactly it is that drives them.

I've done a Google search on Julien's blog for articles on Lithuania, and have found no mention of the country's deplorable anti-gay legislation. That's just one major issue I came up with, off the top of my head, simply because it's in my neighborhood. (Full disclosure: yes, Estonia isn't much better in this regard; I signed the recent petition in support of legal recognition of same-sex marriages, but I don't think it had any effect. But at least we don't have laws making it illegal to talk about LGBT in a positive light.) Another big issue that I can think of without really doing any research is the half of Cyprus that is currently occupied by Turkey. My point being: there are a lot of areas that threaten European values far more immediately than a non-EU country with a history of vehement direct democracy adopting a policy that can just as easily be implemented with a few administrative guidelines discreetly issued by whichever ministry oversees the urban planning commissions.

No, the reason why everyone suddenly cares about the Swiss referendum is because of the context, the discourse of Islam in Europe that is being actively promoted by the same caliber of activist that would torch cars and throw rocks at shop windows over a newspaper cartoon. Muslim punditry is, by far and away, the squeakiest wheel in Europe, and I dare Julien to prove me wrong.

Here is the question that critics of the Swiss ban have to ask themselves: Would you want these guys in your back yard?

European constitutions include, and European values are generally thought to contain, the protection of minorities against discrimination. I am continually astounded by how this is tragically misunderstood (and occasionally, criminally misconstrued). Democracy does not serve the interest of every citizen unequivocally. Democracy is the art of resolving conflicting interests, and it very rarely manages this to the satisfaction of all parties.

When the interest of the minority is so fundamentally at odds with the interest of the majority, the minority will simply have to be disappointed. (And when the interest of the minority is literally shouting religious propaganda from the rooftops, the minority really ought not be so surprised.)

And what is the alternative, exactly? When the double majority of the population is against something, enough to go and vote, then is it really the best course of action to condemn the un-European, discriminating bastards? Is it really so in line with the values of 21st century European civilization to force people to subdue their dislike of an ideology imposed by an aggressive minority? Do we take a nation where every adult male is legally required to own an assault rifle, and force them to live alongside the Muslims they want nothing to do with?

Because that happened, right here in Europe, less than two decades ago - and we've still got a bunch of judges in Strasbourg trying to figure out what happened.

14 comments:

space_maze said...

While I can see why this referendum passed - people residing close the the Viennese mosque have been petitioning to shut up the muezzin since the thing was built - I can't say I generally much like the principle of putting people's rights to the vote like this. It reminds me of the old saying that real democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner. This is the same Swiss democracy that prevented women from voting well into the 70s as a majority of men were against women's rights to vote, and the same kind of democracy that took away homosexual's rights to marry in California last year - which I personally considered a farce, on a way bigger scale than this.

I agree with what you say about a person's freedoms ending at the tip of his nose, but I don't see how it's relevant here. How do minarets themselves inflict on the rights of the general population? Muezzins spewing propaganda as they are in Vienna certainly do, but how is a minaret in and by itself any different from a church tower? Two of the three mosques with minarettes in Austria were simply denied the right to put a cleric up on the tower. Problem solved, without creating any double standards.

That's another thing that bugs me about this referendum - the double standards. The SVP, the main backer of this referendum, is also fighting to keep crucifixes up on the walls in public schools in Switzerland. So this party is actively supporting the propogation of religion X by the state, but is fighting against the customs of religion Y carried out on private property.

.. also, what about Serbia?

Flasher T said...

Muezzins spewing propaganda as they are in Vienna certainly do, but how is a minaret in and by itself any different from a church tower?

Be honest. Do you think minarets will be used for any other purpose than the muezzin's call to prayer? (Their only other function is as an air circulation system, and I rather think Geneva doesn't have the same cooling issues as Riyadh.) Personally I love church architecture, despite being an atheist - I always make a point of visiting remarkable churches while travelling. This is not an issue of decoration or skyline.

Problem solved, without creating any double standards.

Hardly. Do Vienna's Christian churches not have bells in their towers any more?

Yes, they could have achieved the result bureaucratically, and I'm sure most of Europe has. Switzerland has the tradition of putting everything to a referendum. They were honest about it and just said "No, we don't like it and we're not going to allow it".

So this party is actively supporting the propogation of religion X by the state, but is fighting against the customs of religion Y carried out on private property.

So let SVP's natural opponents join forces with Muslim activists and force a referendum on crucifices in schools. That would be great.

.. also, what about Serbia?

Four decades (at least) of people of different religions and values, forced to live together. As soon as Tito wasn't there to keep everyone subdued, you got a decade-long war and ethnic cleansings. Tolerance at gunpoint does not work.

space_maze said...

Be honest. Do you think minarets will be used for any other purpose than the muezzin's call to prayer? (Their only other function is as an air circulation system, and I rather think Geneva doesn't have the same cooling issues as Riyadh.)

Well .. yes. The Austrian cities of Telfs and Bad Vöslau made it perfectly clear that they would never, ever, ever allow a muezzin. The mosques were built with minarets anyways. For the same kind of reasons catholic churches are still built with towers in Austria, even if the bells that you mentioned *are* on their way out in Austria.

Hardly. Do Vienna's Christian churches not have bells in their towers any more?

Saint Stephen's cathedral in Vienna is only allowed to ring its bell on New Year's eve, or when the president dies.

Rui Pacheco said...

Likes this.

Eurocentric said...

I disagree.

Though I agree that the public expression of religion is a qualified right, that doesn't mean the state (for the majority is using the state as its agent) can arbitrarily curtail such expression whenever it likes simply for the reason that it doesn't like what is being expressed or how its being expressed.

Human rights and the rule of law have to be respected. Qualifications on rights have to be justified, and the restrictions and reasons apply across the board: meaning no double standards. This is built into the conception of rights (qualifications on rights must be justified as reasonable and proportionate, and not be discriminatory). The distinction between the public and the private is important here too - without a proper public reason for the intervention of the state, and equality of treatment for similar people/situations under the law, the rule of law has been contravened, as the exercise of state power is arbitrary.

The ways other states may have done it, bureaucratic or not, may or may not fall within the limits of human rights and the rule of law - I don't know, I'd need to see the cases. However, an outright ban that doesn't effect other similar situations in the same way is clearly discriminatory, and the law doesn't seem to regulate any aspect of the minarets that is objectionable on grounds of public necessity.

Democracy is a way of resolving disagreements over how the state acts, where it acts, but the state cannot be allowed to act anywhere it wants, simply because it wants. It's not just democracy that makes a liberal democratic state, but the adherence to certain standards of the rule of law and individual rights. On this basis, I don't think the law is justified, (though maybe other laws which could have the same end effect could be).

Flasher T said...

"that doesn't mean the state (for the majority is using the state as its agent) can arbitrarily curtail such expression whenever it likes"

The state certainly can't. What about the people?

"without a proper public reason for the intervention of the state"

The public reason is that the predominant function of a minaret is to spread religious propaganda on a population that may not want to hear it. (For the record, I am equally opposed to church bells.)

"but the state cannot be allowed to act anywhere it wants, simply because it wants."

True. However, the people must be allowed to act on their wants within the boundaries of their nation. It is genuinely odd to me how most commenters, including you and Julien, do not seem to recognize the distinction between legislation and referenda.

I also maintain that limiting religious propaganda directed at a population that has positively affirmed its desire to not be submitted to it does not constitute a breach of human rights.

Once again: freedom of religion covers the exercise of religion, not the imposition of it. Not only is it within the obligations of a state to protect its citizens from intrusive preaching, but it is unequivocally within the right of citizens to establish this protection in law, within their own community.

Flasher T said...

Actually, here's another idea I've come across through arguing this topic in other places. Multiple people have said that a ban on minarets should be accompanied by a ban on church towers. I don't think it is such a ludicrous argument that in a modern European secular state, church spires have lost their predominant connotation as a Christian symbol. I know that here in Tartu, a major Lutheran church was renovated using (in part) municipal money, and as a result of that, it is now in use as a concert hall - it was even used as a screening hall for a film festival a couple of years ago. I think this argument can be successfully made in court: that church spires and bells are a part of European cultural heritage, that through long-term exposure and a natural evolution towards a secular state the local community has come to view them as separate from Christian ideology, and that as such, within the boundaries of this community, a minaret is not semantically equal to a church spire.

Conversely, the residents of Cairo, Istanbul or Tehran are free to ban the construction of a bell tower, and I am fine with that.

Flasher T said...

without a proper public reason for the intervention of the state, and equality of treatment for similar people/situations under the law, the rule of law has been contravened, as the exercise of state power is arbitrary.

I would argue that anti-spam legislation is applicable as a precedent in a statutory limitation on minarets. It is established in law that a)freedom of expression does not cover imposing expression on those who wish to avoid it, and b)the application of human rights to individuals does not directly translate to organizations - which a church or mosque certainly is.

Julien Frisch said...

Dear Flasher_T,

I appreciate the debate, in fact I appreciate it a lot. But you reacting to my post without respecting the full argument that I have elaborated in my post, and by bringing up argumentative subtexts that have nothing to do with the topic.

First and foremost, my argument is about equal rights.

You cannot have a free and democratic society without granting equal rights to everyone. The basic idea of having a democratic referendum is that you consider every citizens to have these equal rights, but allowing to withdraw this equality from a minority by such a vote is against the basic principle of the procedure itself.

Since these rights include, in our societies, the right to believe or not to believe in whatever you want - called religious freedom - and to pursue these believes freely and actively, treating single religions better or worse than others is against this basic principle of equal rights and religious freedom.

And I have to say that I who I have been raised in the former East, too, although actually growing up in a unifying Europe as you did, too, I am an atheist. I think religion is something private, not public.

Yet, my private and personal opinion, as important it might be, is equal to the opinions of others, many of whom think that religion constitutes an important part of their identity, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew or whatever else one can believe in. And they want a society in which they may live their believes openly.

All I want is that we have equal rights, that I can live my life without being forced to believe and that they may live in accordance with their faith.

So coming back to the minaret matter: If the referendum would have been on banning religious towers penetrating into the lives of others, and if a majority had agreed that no religious or non-religious group may build such towers nor have any bells, shouting people or other disturbing elements with these towers or their religious buildings, I would have been happy and silent.

But a referendum initiated by a group of politicians who openly dislike muslims (for them this whole thing was never about minarets) and want to underline their dislike with the means of a referendum that does nothing but creating unequal rights for different groups of citizens according to their faith is against my understanding of a democratic society based on legal equality.

This is what I care about, and this is why I blog about it.

And this brings me to my last point:

You deliberately misused a seemingly objective Google Search regarding gay right in Lithuania to prove your arguments. If you had been interested in the matter and didn't want to use it just to strengthen your argumentation that wasn't really based on my arguments, you would have found that I have been writing about anti-gay incidents at the Moscow Gay Pride (including a follow-up) or about homophobia in Hungary when no other euroblogger did. It is true, I did not write about that matter in the Lithuanian case, but as an individual blogger I cannot write about everything for simple time reasons, even though I notice that there is a lot of injustice all over Europe and all over the continent (including the treatment of Russian minorities) that I should write about much more.

I hope I was able to make my point much clearer now.

Best, Julien

Eurocentric said...

Referendums are just a different mechanism for passing legislation (as opposed to the parliamentary mechanism), and it sets a state's laws. Therefore, it involves the exercise of state power, and should be limited to the same extent that the state's power is normally limited. As I said in my post, I reject the idea that the state, through referendum-mandates should have the power to do anything, without distinction for the public or private spheres or for individual rights. Just because a decision is made by referendum does not mean that it should overstep the bounds of state power.

The end result of setting no bounds on what the majority can do - even to the extent of not being bound by the legalities of the state - is very dangerous, and is mob rule. It delegitimises the decision if it's done through sheer force of numbers rather than submitting to the pre-agreed impartial space of the rule of law. Basing legitimacy on numbers is just another way of "might is right" if it's not bound by the recipricol duties of the rule of law.

"The public reason is that the predominant function of a minaret is to spread religious propaganda on a population that may not want to hear it. (For the record, I am equally opposed to church bells.)"

But the legislation is not against church bells. It doesn't matter whether you or any supporters of this act think that church bells are equally as wrong; they are simply not treated in the same way for similar reasons. You later try to argue that church bells/spires have become secularised - in effect, you're arguing that the test for unacceptability should be subjective: that is, based on the perceptions of whoever might happen to be listening, rather than an objective standard of the damage to rights. Should free speech be interfered with simply on the strength of the feeling of offence people (whatever the number) feel? No, the standard must be objective in that it interferes unreasonably with other people's rights or damages the public health/security (advocating hate/race crime, etc).

Eurocentric said...

"I also maintain that limiting religious propaganda directed at a population that has positively affirmed its desire to not be submitted to it does not constitute a breach of human rights.

Once again: freedom of religion covers the exercise of religion, not the imposition of it. Not only is it within the obligations of a state to protect its citizens from intrusive preaching, but it is unequivocally within the right of citizens to establish this protection in law, within their own community.
"

How is it being imposed? My understanding is that it's a call to prayer, so it's not even preaching, it's just a ritual. Is any coercion involved, or is it interfering with the rights of others to exercise their beliefs? How is it conflicting with the exercise of their rights (that they "don't like it" doesn't constitute by itself a good reason)? I wouldn't classify church bells as religious propaganda either, since it doesn't interfere with any rights per se.

The only way it could interfere with rights is if the noise was too loud so it stopped people from living their lives properly or was injurous to their health. But even here rights can only be interfered with to the extent that they protect the rights of others - in other words a restriction (or failing that, a ban) on the noise. The building of minarets may or may not stop oif the noise was banned, but that's just a side issue, and in reality their right to build the minaret wouldn't in itself be interfered with. The distinction means something because it's about how much the choices and freedom of certain individuals can be limited by the state.

At the end of the day, people don't have a right to be shielded from the cultural practices of others - the state doesn't have the duty to ensure citizens live their lives in a protective bubble. There's no right in itself for people to be protected from opinions or songs or music, etc that they doesn't like. People do have a right not to have their rights unjustly restricted by others.

They might not like the message/prayer that's being said, but there has to be a further objective element of a sufficient level of seriousness to justify an infringement of rights, and even then, rights should only be infringed to the extent that is necessary and proportional for the objective, and in a way that doesn't discriminate unjustly between similar situations.

Flasher T said...

Julien,

First of all, I was not implying that you do not care or do not cover gay rights issues. Quite the opposite: my mention of Lithuania was designed to emphasize the point of Switzerland being covered disproportionately.

these rights include, in our societies, the right to believe or not to believe in whatever you want - called religious freedom - and to pursue these believes freely and actively

Yes. But not to force the beliefs on people who don't want them. That is integral to religious freedom. Like I said, Switzerland has not banned Islam, and it has not banned mosques. Not every move to limit anything related to a religion is the restriction of religious freedom. German authorities have made Scientology illegal in their country - if freedom of religion is as fundamental, privileged and all-encompassing as you say, then why isn't the international community crying foul about that?

a group of politicians who openly dislike muslims (for them this whole thing was never about minarets)

I would be a lot more opposed to the ban if it was established by an act of parliament, not a referendum.

As I have already said many, many times: human rights do not grant anyone permission to impose their views, culture or ideology on those who do not wish it. The right of every person to exercise his preferred religion privately does not preclude the right of a community to restrict the public propaganda of that religion; and vice versa.

Flasher T said...

Therefore, it involves the exercise of state power, and should be limited to the same extent that the state's power is normally limited.

I don't know about your country's constitution, but mine starts with: "Estonia is an independent and sovereign democratic republic wherein the supreme power of state is vested in the people." Limits on the exercise of state power are in place to mind the gap between the will of the people and the actions of their representatives. A nation's expression of will through direct democracy may not supercede fundamental human rights, but it sure as hell supercedes administrative restrictions. That is why referendum is the most common prescribed way of altering a constitution.

in effect, you're arguing that the test for unacceptability should be subjective: that is, based on the perceptions of whoever might happen to be listening, rather than an objective standard of the damage to rights.

Yes, and this type of subjective test is clearly established in legal history - the most basic example is the trial by jury of peers, and there are others, such as foreseeability of consequences by a reasonable person (e.g. the extent of allowable self-defense).

Should free speech be interfered with simply on the strength of the feeling of offence people (whatever the number) feel?

Whether or not it should, it is. The legal difference between free speech and incitement of hatred is a subjective standard, based on the perception of the community.

Flasher T said...

My understanding is that it's a call to prayer, so it's not even preaching, it's just a ritual. Is any coercion involved, or is it interfering with the rights of others to exercise their beliefs?

When you are submitted to five calls per day to exercise a ritual that conflicts with your own views, it is coersion. In its absolute extreme, the same principle is applied in torture techniques.

I wouldn't classify church bells as religious propaganda either, since it doesn't interfere with any rights per se.

And yet space_maze says that Vienna has banned church bells (with an exception for manifestly secular events).

At the end of the day, people don't have a right to be shielded from the cultural practices of others

You're wrong. People don't have the right to forbid anyone else from their cultural practices (and even that right is not absolute, it cannot be used in defense of paedophilia or cannibalism). But people certainly have the right to shield themselves from cultural practices that they find offensive. That is why you cannot sacrifice a live goat in Town Hall Square, even if your religion demands it, and you own the goat.

There's no right in itself for people to be protected from opinions or songs or music, etc that they doesn't like.

Again: why is spam illegal? Why do different consumer protection standards apply to door-to-door salesmen than to supermarkets?

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