Economist.comMosques in the West
Islam, the American way
Aug 30th 2007
Why the United States is fairer to Muslims than “Eurabia” is
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IN PITTSBURGH, a Turkish group, pious but peaceful, decides to rethink its plans for an Islamic centre after an angry public hearing. In Clitheroe, a town in northern England, a plan to turn an ex-church into a mosque wins planning approval after seven failed bids. In Austria a far-rightist, Jörg Haider, grabs headlines by proposing that no mosques or minarets should be built in the province of Carinthia, where he is governor. In Memphis, Tennessee, Muslims manage to build a large cemetery despite local objections to their burial customs.
On the face of it, there is something similar about all these vignettes of inter-faith politics in the Western world. They all illustrate the strong emotions, and opportunistic electoral games, that are surfacing in many countries as Muslim minorities, increasingly prosperous and confident, aspire to build more mosques and other communal buildings. All these stories show the way in which whipped-up fears of a “clash of civilisations” can inflame the humdrum politics of a locality.
But there is a big transatlantic difference in the way such disputes are handled (see article). Although America has plenty of Islam-bashers ready to play on people's fears, it offers better protection to the mosque builders. In particular, its constitution, legal system and political culture all generally take the side of religious liberty. America's tradition of freedom is rooted in the First Amendment, and its stipulation that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” Another recourse for embattled minorities of any kind is “Section 1983” of America's civil-rights legislation, which allows an individual who is deprived of a legal or constitutional right to sue the official responsible.
More important than the letter of the law is an ethos that leans in favour of religious communities which are “new” (to their neighbours) and simply want to practise their faith in a way that harms nobody. In America the tone of disputes over religious buildings (or cultural centres or cemeteries) is affected by everyone's presumption that if the issue went to the highest level, the cause of liberty would probably prevail.
The European Convention on Human Rights, and the court that enforces it, also protect religious freedom. But the convention is not central to European politics in the way the Supreme Court and constitution are in America. The European court disappointed advocates of religious liberty when it upheld Turkey's ban on the headscarf in universities.
The risk in the garages
Legal principles aside, there are pragmatic reasons for favouring the American way. Most mosques in the Western world pose no threat to non-Muslim citizens; but a few do pose such a danger, because of the hatred that is preached in them. In such cases police forces generally have the legal armoury they need to step in and make arrests if necessary. Quashing extremism will surely be easier in an atmosphere where the founding and running of mosques is an open, transparent business. As Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, once said: “It is not minarets which are dangerous; it is basements and garages which hide secret places of worship.”
Will someone please tell the Swiss? Politicians from two of the biggest political parties are seeking to insert a sentence into the country's constitution forbidding the building of minarets. Measures of this sort exemplify the bigotry that lies behind much of the opposition to mosque building in Europe. Christians in the West have long complained about how hard it is for their brethren in Muslim lands to build churches. Fair enough. But they should practise what they preach.