Langer: A misguided vote on minarets

On Oct. 1, I attended the Master’s Tea with Kurt Westergaard that was, before and after, debated with vigor in the pages of the News. I was rather taken aback by the vitriolic attacks levelled against the elderly Danish cartoonist on that occasion; the reproach that his drawing insulted Islam and all Muslims seemed to overlook that Westergaard had not aimed to ridicule a religion, but some of its most militant followers. I also felt that the audience ignored an important difference between European and American approaches to integration. With much more extensive (and expensive) social safety nets, European societies — for better or for worse — expect a higher degree of assimilation and adherence to generally applicable, egalitarian and secular rules.

It has now become much more difficult for me to maintain my benign view on the even-handedness of European integration policies. Last Saturday, Swiss voters approved a constitutional amendment banning the construction of minarets by a majority of 57.5 percent. Some brief explanation on Swiss ballot initiatives might be in order: They have an extraordinarily low threshold (100,000 signatories are sufficient to submit any issue to a nationwide ballot); they are passed by simple majority; they are always aimed at amending the constitution; and they address a wide variety of policies (Saturday’s ballot also included an initiative to ban all weapons exports).

The only substantive limit is set by peremptory norms of international law. Government officials, politicians and experts agreed that the minaret initiative violated guarantees on freedom of religion and protection from discrimination enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But these specific guarantees are not generally held to be peremptory.

The government had made it clear that it would be impossible to reconcile the initiative with Switzerland’s international human rights obligations. The two chambers of the legislative had recommended rejection of the ballot initiative by wide margins.

There is a long tradition of populist initiatives — banning Freemasonry, for instance, or not applying the statute of limitations to child abuse — some of which were successful. The degree and scope of direct democratic participation is impressive: Next year, Swiss will vote on prohibiting executive severance payments, and on banning SUVs . But the more blatantly xenophobic campaigns (of which there have been many) were mostly rejected. Swiss voters even regularly agree to raise their own taxes. So where was this common sense on Saturday?

The minaret initiative was a populist initiative par excellence. So far, there are four minarets in all of Switzerland. Yet, the posters for the initiative showed a veiled woman in front of a Swiss flag pierced by countless minarets. A non-issue was blown out of all proportion. And with what justification? Minarets, the initiative’s proponents claimed, were not religious symbols, but signs of conquest: They stood for the religious and political monopoly of Islam that denied others’ fundamental rights, especially their equality before the law. After the ballot initiative had passed, its supporters rejoiced that the constitutional order in Switzerland had been safeguarded and Sharia law contained.

I fail to see the link between Sharia law and minarets. And I would have thought that safeguarding the constitutional order of Switzerland would include upholding the right to freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination — both guaranteed by the constitutional bill of rights. It takes considerable impudence to invoke equality before the law while promoting discrimination. The compatibility of some religious traditions with human rights is a serious concern. But this concern is not limited to Islam, nor addressed in any way by a ban on an architectural structure.

It is sad that the Swiss fell for cheap fear-mongering. But it is sadder still that Saturday’s vote has implication beyond the pristine Alpine valleys of Switzerland. Right wing parties in other European countries have heralded the vote as a new dawn — as the awakening of Europe to the Islamic threat. Were the same question put to voters in other European countries, the outcome would most likely be identical. It turns out that the values that were touted during the cartoon controversy — civil liberties, equality before the law — are more complex than we thought; like the rules on Animal Farm, they apply to everyone, but more to some than to others. Muslims may only enjoy their freedom of religion (which, the supporters of the minaret initiative insisted, was not infringed upon) without visibly affecting the ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’ of Europe. Invoking this heritage has now become commonplace along with the use of xenophobic stereotypes for electoral purposes. In Europe, the adjective ‘multicultural’ evokes the same reaction as ‘liberal’ in the United States, defended by a shrinking minority scoffed at by most.

I still believe that the reaction over the Danish cartoons was misguided. But at least with the cartoons, the argument could be made that a central aspect of liberal democracy was at stake: Religion should not once again become the arbiter on what can be said. But in turn we have to respect the protected space that has been granted to religion, and to all religions equally. One of the major demands in Europe is that Muslims “play by the rules.” But that should apply to the majority, too. The Swiss have not played by the rules set out in their constitution and in international agreements. How can they expect others to do so?

Lorenz Langer is a visiting researcher at the Law School.


  • (PK)

    “They [minarets]stood for the religious and political monopoly of Islam that denied others’ fundamental rights, especially their equality before the law.”

    According to this logic Switzerland should ban steeples and Star of David architecture too a symbols of sexism and racism:

    Women and men have segregated seating in Conservative Synagogues.

    The Judeo-Christian world has used the Genesis story to stigmatize and keep women subservient for thousands of years.

    (Eve–the woman–not Adam –the man– is said to responsible for Original Sin by her failure to avoid Satan’s tempatation with the fruit of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.)

    Racism’s origins are said to come from the Curse of Ham by Noah in the Old Testament, a curse which results in Ham’s son, Canaan, being born with dark skin.

    Architecture symbolizes the destructive history of religion as well as its constructive impulses.

    And what about noise pollution? All those bells clangings from steeples for centuries.

    Fianlly, Freud makes it very clear that archictecture can boast phallic and womb symbols. Steeples, (and I suppose minarets) are clearly masculine dominance symbols, to say the least.

  • Huh?

    “Steeples, (and I suppose minarets) are clearly masculine dominance symbols…”

    Well, duh: vaginal architecture lets too much rain in…

    Hey, how ’bout those Christian honor killings we hear so much about? Got any words ‘o wisdom to impart there?

    Love to hear your thoughts on the widespread suppression, oppression, and killing of Muslims currently taking place in Christian-majority nations. Oh, wait…

  • yalie

    Thoughtful and well-written essay. All this does highlight just how complex things really are.

  • Vaginal Architecture

    #2 Well, duh: vaginal architecture lets too much rain in…

    And what do you think the concave fortress (square donut) architecture of Yale residential colleges amounts to?

    No one denies that atrocities have taken place in the name of ALL religions. Are you actually suggesting that Christianty’s hands are less soiled than
    Islam’s? ((the crusades; slavery?)

  • Peter Gruber

    Lorenz Langer should probably stay in the USA, one of the most Muslim-hating countries in the world. A democratically supported ban of minarets seems in his (former?) home country to disturb him more than the daily terror against Muslims in the US. A few examples:

    Lorenz Langer is a classical example for intellectual bigotry far away from real life of people who spent their time with paid work in order to allow him his reality-detached spare time at university.

  • Huh?

    “Are you actually suggesting that Christianty’s hands are less soiled than
    Islam’s? ((the crusades; slavery?)”

    If you would research those old canards rather than simply parroting them you would find not only a much more nuanced view but one that, indeed, favors Christianity in both instances.

    That you spout as you do, however, indicates to me that you have not done so nor have any intention of doing so. So… “whatevah.”

  • Hmm…

    I am sure to regret this…

    Let us take first the “slavery” meme.

    What groups and major individuals first moved to end modern slavery? Hmm?
    17th century Quakers and Mennonites, maybe? And can you say “Wilberforce?”

    And, let’s see, which “cultures” engage in slavery TODAY? Let’s start with the Christian nations, shall we?

    What? No Western Civs engage in slavery today? Gads! Then… whom?

    Oh: wait, here we go: the following is but a brief list of the many countries that still engage, often openly, in the buying and selling of slaves (world estimate for enslaved individuals exceeds 27MM):
    (you figure out the connection…)

    Oh, but not ALL slave-traders are Muslim, let us not forget

    So: you can moan about Christianity’s historical role in slavery (which would be: ending it), but why not face up to which cultures engage in the buying and selling of humans RIGHT NOW?

    27 million is not a small number, and exceeds by severalfold the total US slave population 1790-1850.

    But you keep on whinging about the past, brother, while your fellow humans suffer and die. You seem okay with that…

  • to #6

    I have, and you’re wrong.

    “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.”

  • Nuanced Canardist

    Nuanced? Biblical justifications for slavery were preached from pulpits in both the North and South for decades before the Civil War. And John Brown took his radical Christianity to Harpur’s Ferry, in an act of Christian terorism designed to shake up the hypocritical Christians who sustained a government which legalized selling human beings for money., if there ever was one.
    The only reason Christianity might emerge in a slightly favorable light in the matter of Abolitionism is that Harriet Beecher Stowe (a famous preacher’s daughter and wife of a theology teacher)) used the “pulpit” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to make Christians and Christian preachers feel guilty about profiteering off human flesh and breeding humans through rape and sexual coercion.

    Alluding to the Crusades is a candard? A decoy for what? To lure modern Christian liberals into masochistic breast beating and self flaggellation?

    Canard seems like a glib and flip criticism, the very parroting and spouting for which you have so little patience.

    If you demand research to support assertions, kindly produce something more
    specific than name calling generalities.


  • Hmm…

    The fact remains: The Crusades were a counterattack on Islam—not an unprovoked assault as Armstrong and other revisionist historians portray. Eminent historian Bernard Lewis (“The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years”) puts it well:

    Even the Christian crusade, often compared with the Muslim jihad, was itself a delayed and limited response to the jihad and in part also an imitation. But unlike the jihad, it was concerned primarily with the defense or reconquest of threatened or lost Christian territory. It was, with few exceptions, limited to the successful wars for the recovery of southwest Europe, and the unsuccessful wars to recover the Holy Land and to halt the Ottoman advance in the Balkans. The Muslim jihad, in contrast, was [IS] perceived as unlimited, as a religious obligation that would continue until all the world had either adopted the Muslim faith or submitted to Muslim rule. … The object of jihad is [EVEN NOW] to bring the whole world under Islamic law.

    Dar al’Islam; Dar al’Harb: which are you?

  • to #7

    First, you do realize that Nigeria is 40% Christian, right? And that human trafficking is a serious problem in Christian Eastern Europe?

    “So: you can moan about Christianity’s historical role in slavery (which would be: ending it), but why not face up to which cultures engage in the buying and selling of humans RIGHT NOW?”

    Historical examples are brought up to disprove the allegation thrown around that Christianity is somehow superior to Islam, or that Islam is a religion of violence/evil, and so forth.

    To be more formal, the fact that people of religion X are doing action Y in this particular century C1 does not mean that X always leads to Y for all C, or even that X always leads to Y for *any* C. The statement you’re making about the relationship between X and Y is a correlative one, but you’re interpreting it as a causal one, which is incorrect. In order to show a causal relationship, you would need to demonstrate that it is X, and not another factor, leading to Y.

    The introduction of a historical example — religion A also did action Y in another century C2 — lets us work out the following:

    A(C2) –> Y
    X(C1) –> Y

    This is a problem called equifinality, and it usually suggests that you need to account for more variables, since the variation in your independent variable (here, religion) doesn’t seem to be affecting your dependent variable.

    All of that said, you can expand the time period you’re looking at quite a bit and find that slavery is a very persistent human institution, including under Christian rulers. As a fun example of Christian justifications for slavery, St. Aquinas argued that slavery was a consequence of original sin and a natural phenomenon.

    tl;dr: You’re conflating correlation with causation and don’t know your history.

  • Allah huAkbar

    Professors and organizations espousing political correctness try to paint the Crusades as an attempt by the West to colonize the Middle East, or as religious wars aimed at forcibly converting the Muslim world to Christianity. Not so. They were, in fact, a concerted effort by Europe to roll back centuries of jihad expansion into Christian territories. Moreover, once the crusaders established states in the Levant, they made little effort to convert the native population to Christ. Anyone remotely familiar with European history ought to know this. As late as the seventeenth century, Islamic forces were attempting to penetrate deep into the heart of Europe. The Battle of Vienna in 1683, where Polish forces repulsed a Muslim army, represented the last great jihad into Europe. Until now.

    The new jihad has taken on different forms. Massive Muslim immigration into Europe has given the jihadists of Al-Qaeda many recruits to fashion a new army and thus finally bring a significant portion of the West to Allah.

    It is bizarre and questionable that any present day political ideology should be driven by events that took place a thousand years ago. What’s more, I wonder why so many Westerners collapse into a guilt coma at the mere mention of the Crusades without asking some important questions. How did the ancient birth place of Christianity, the stomping grounds of the Apostle Paul, St. Augustine, and the incubator that produced the creed most Christians repeat on Sunday mornings become Muslim in the first place? It was the result of Muhammad’s war of conquests which lasted almost a thousand years that swallowed the birthplace of Christianity and then stomped out the light that once burned so brightly there.

    The Crusades were a belated, misguided, and often ignoble response to hundreds of years of Islamic “crusades.” That march of brutal Islamic imperialism and colonization in the name of Allah ended at the gates of Vienna on a date that should mean something to the world: September 11, 1683. To be a good Muslim is to long for the renewal of that conquest of Europe and the West.

  • Allah al-Raheem

    One would do well to examine many of the draconian and intolerant beliefs of Islam without the incoherent contortions that Islamic apologists give to such issues as the sickening mistreatment of women and girls or the Nazi-like (complete with yellow patches on the clothing) Dhimmi status (a form of slavery) required of Christians and Jews in Muslim lands.

    Or how about Muhammad, who, had he lived today in any western nation would be considered a pedophile due to the fact that his eleventh (and favorite) wife was 6 years old when they married and 9 when the marriage was consummated (the loving husband was 52). That’s really not very much like the historical Jesus, which is one of many examples where the moral equivalency between Christianity and Islam touted by the left crumbles in the light of inconvenient facts.

    Of all the major religions, only the Islam preaches–and pursues–world domination through violent means.

  • Eleni Martsoukou

    There is much to agree and to disagree with the article by Lorenz Langer and previous postings.
    But my point lies elsewhere.
    Legally speaking, the assertion that “these specific guarantees are not generally held to be peremptory” when it comes to the European Convention of Human Rights is erroneous. The European Convention of Human Rights and its provisions are mandatory for all states members of the Council of Europe.
    Just for clarification purposes without going into the substantive merits of the debate of Islam within Europe.

  • Egalitarian

    To #2: Orthodox Judaism has gender-segregated seating in synagogues. Conservative Judaism does not require gender-segregated seating, and the majority of Conservative synagogues do not have it. My own synagogue falls under this category. Women are permitted and encouraged to praticipate in services and rituals just as men do, and we have even had a female rabbi and multiple female presidents.

    Also, Original Sin is a Christian concept and does not exist in Judaism. We believe that all people are born innocent and that we become sinners as a result of the choices that we make of our own free will.

    For all the talk of the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is important to understand that Judaism and Christianity are different religions and that Jews do not necessarily believe all of the things that Christians believe. Get your facts straight before you make these sorts of comments.

  • (PK)


    Love your polite scrappiness!

    You are correct about Conservative Judaism. I did mean Orthodox. 5 A.M. is a bit early to fire on all cylinders. Sorry.

    Of course Judaism doesn’t believe in Original Sin but it has used the Genesis account of Eve’s role as “helpmete” in the same way Christianity does:to keep women in a subordinate role.

    Original Sin is a little Christian frosting on the cake of the Judaic text, as is the contention that the messiah of Christianity was predicted in the Old Testament, rendering the holy book of Hebrews merely a preface to the actual revelation.

    It’s all power politics disgusied as gender and sectarian debate.

    Of course Judaism and Christianity are separate religions. In fact, my Jewish friends refer to The New Testament as The Second Testament, firstness not newness thus becoming the criterion of victory in the interminable debate of authenticity.

    As for Jesus: It’s a hopeless mess. The debate over the ipsissima verba Jesu (the very words of Jesus) extends from the unthinking belief that ALL words in the New Testament came from the mouth of Jesus to the scholarly opinion that at most 31 (thirty-one) words in the New Testament MAY be from the mouth of Jesus, but only as reported 40 years after his crucifixion (at the earliest )by followers who passed them down through oral tradition. And you know what gossip does to any story.

    Now–Judaism and Christianity may be different religions, but Jesus himself had ONE religion: Judaism.
    The Last Supper was a Passover Supper.

    Jesus’s actual name was Joshua ben Joseph.

  • Trivialize Evil at Your own Risk

    PS to # 6:

    12 million Africans were brought to the US by the slave trade from the 16th-19th century.

    I am not aware that of the 27 million slaves worldwide today, the judiciary of any government has ruled that they are NOT human beings (Dred Scott decision); that any legislature has made it illegal to teach them to read ; that any religion has allowed its preachers to use a sacred text (the Bible) to justify the practice of their enslavement.

    Twenty-seven million is a dreadful number.

    America’s role and American Christianity’s role in perpetuating the evil of slavery is neither minor nor accidental.

    To casually wave away as “moaning” the completely appropriate shame and regret many American citizens feel over 150 years of premeditated evil perpetuated by our government, is the luxury of someone whose ancestors have not be bought and sold and turned into lust toys, even for an occupant of the White House who refused to give his name to the offspring of that lust.


  • to #12/13

    I really don’t feel like getting into that whole giant mess of posts, so just a comment. You pointed out that the crusader kingdoms in the Levant didn’t attempt to convert the locals, and this is correct.

    And neither did the Muslims in the lands they conquered in their 8th century expansion.

  • Ali

    Let’s hand it to the Saudis. The officially outlawed slavery –presumably by a fatwa– in 1962!

    What more can you say.

  • Ali

    Did someone mention the European Human Rights Convention?

    “A civilization is defined by its values. Our western civilization is defined by the values which are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These values are, in short: freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, including freedom to change religion, equality before the law, gender equality.
    Not a single Moslem country supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights! ALL 57 Moslem countries have subscribed to the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam which declares that Islam is superior to all other religions and that all human rights must be in accord with Islamic law, Shariah, which legally subordinates non-Moslems and women. All of this sure seems like a clash of civilizations to me! For good measure, here is what some leading Islamic leaders have to say on the subject of human rights:
    — 1981 – Iranian rep to UN: “UDHR is a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition” which could not be implemented by Muslims without trespassing the Islamic law.
    — AYATOLLAH KHOMEINI: “What they call human rights is nothing but a collection of corrupt rules worked out by the Zionists to destroy all true religions.”
    — AYATOLLAH MOUSSAVE-KHOMENEHI: When we want to find out what is right and what is wrong we do not go to the United Nations; we go to the Holy Koran…”
    — MUHAMMED NACERI, member of Morocco Council of Religious Scholars:
    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was for complete equality for man and women. For us, women are equal to men in law, but they are not the same as men, and they can’t be allowed to wander around freely in the streets like some kind of animal.”
    — Iranian Supreme Leader and former Iranian president, ALI KHAMENEI, said: “When we want to find out what is right and what is wrong we do not go to the United Nations; we go to the Holy Koran. For us, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is nothing but a collection of mumbo-jumbo by disciples of Satan.”

    — ABUL MAUDUDI — perhaps the most widely read, respected and influential Islamic writer of the 20th Century, said: “When we speak of human rights in Islam, we mean those rights granted by God. ”

  • (PK)

    #13 “That’s really not very much like the historical Jesus, which is one of many examples where the moral equivalency between Christianity and Islam touted by the left crumbles in the light of inconvenient facts.”

    Would you, dear # 13, kindly cite your credentials to supersede Albert Schweitzer in his The Quest for the Historical Jesus, who came to the conclusion that there are no “facts” to sustain a “historical” Jesus, only beliefs to sustain a Jesus of faith.

    I would be very interested to hear what you “know” other than what other people have told you to believe and what your own personal epiphanies may have led you to conclude (quite illogically), neither of which could possibly be considered a “fact” but rather a “psychological reality”.


  • Egalitarian

    To #16: You misunderstand the basis for the traditional role of women in Judaism. The reason why women were not seen as included in the requirements to participate in rituals is that they had other responsibilities, specifically those of caring for children, which would make full ritual participation difficult. Since it is considered necessary for one to be oligated to perform a ritual in order for that ritual to be valid on behalf of the community, women were not allowed to lead services. This view certainly would not pass the tests of twenty-first century feminism, and I am glad that most movements in Judaism have realized the errors in this interpretation. However, the claim that the traditional views of Judaism and Christianity on gender issues are identical is simply untrue.

    Yes, Jesus was Jewish. This doesn’t mean that his beliefs (to the extent that we even know what they were) or those of his followers are representative of Judaism.

  • (PK)

    Egalitarian #22:

    I’m not going to speak for feminists. If they have a point to make about women in Judaism having “other responsibilities, specifically those of caring for children” let them enter the fray here and do so. It is self-evident however that the Genesis story has been used by both the religion of the First and the religion of the Second Testament to reinforce biological determinism: If your body has a baby-maker and milk-makers, your FATE is to make babies and feed others. PERIOD. If you can fit in time to be Prime Minister of Israel or Britain or India also, we MEN won’t stand in your way. Translation: sexism (non-egalitarianism)

    I choose not to talk about what does not exist. There are no FACTS about Joshua ben Joseph about which one can speak (I agree with Schweitzer, see #21).
    However, one can talk forever about what one BELIEVES. The two are completely different matters.

    I too am an egalitarian. I believe it is elitist to BELIEVE that there is “no way to the father EXCEPT through the son”, just as as it is elitist to believe in a “chosen” (and therefore an “unchosen”) people.

    Sorry for the incovenient truth: Elitism is not something I care to embrace.


  • ?

    This PK is attempting to deny the physical fact of a Jesus? Dude–get over yourself.

  • PK

    # 24
    That is a concise summary of Christianity: “get over your self.”

  • ?

    Which shows to go how someone can attend a “divinity” school and yet, for all intents and purposes, reject Christianity.

    PK, clearly, is unable to get over his self…

  • Yale 08


    Yale Divinity School the source and summit of 95% of the stupidity at Yale.


    Disentangling knowledge from faith and vice versa is precisely why one goes to an ACADEMIC divinity school as opposed to a DENOMINATIONAL divinity school. Yale is the former not the latter. If I recall correctly the ridicule of Yale Divinity School and its students by Daily News posters named Hieronymus and Alum 2008 (in previous articles), the thrust of their “critique’ was that Yale divines are mindless babblers of blind faith.

    You can’t have it both ways. Facts are facts. Jesus is a dubious HISTORICAL figure and an undeniable PSYCHOLOGICAL REALITY in people’s lives, even mine—although you seem to believe that unless my reality is surrounded by unquestioning allegiance and muddy mysticism it is inauthentic.

    Puzzling. Rigid.

  • FH @ #14

    of course all the norms in the European Convention are legally binding, but not all are peremptory. Peremptory norms are ius cogens norms (for example prohibition of genocide or slavery)

  • Hieronymus

    That you consider Jesus a “dubious historical figure” calls into question pretty much anything else you might offer (not that your “wisdom” went unquestioned in the first place).

    Do you refer to Wm Shakespeare as “The Stratford Man,” too? Do you think believe Socrates a fabrication? Do you, yourself, really exist?

    As for DIV being a collection of “mindless babblers of blind faith,” yes, if by “blind faith” you mean today’s rampant religion of secular humanism (and make no mistake: it *is* a religion, along with environmentalists and the green nazis).

  • OD Yalie

    Funny how PK denies that Christ existed as a historical figure at least. I suppose Socrates and Homer didn’t exist either, since there is less ancient evidence to support the existence of these men than Jesus Christ. It’s interesting that a Divinity “scholar” disregards the fact that most ancient texts do not survive into the modern day. Thus, what survives can presumably be seen as a significant percentage of a larger group of works existing in its day. Writing back then was expensive and time consuming, not like typing something into a computer and printing mass-scale. Fine if you don’t believe in the divinity of Christ, but denying his historicity, like Heironymus states, makes your comments seem dubious and uneducated.

  • off track

    All this personal quibbling over random religious stuff is absurd: they are all trolls. One fact remains: this article (whose premise I’m not entirely sure I agree with) is a damn good article. YDN: this is precisely the kind of opinion piece that you need to publish, not that other touchy-feely or poorly written crap.