Minarets and steeples

The minaret of the Geneva mosque

Steve already looked at some of the media coverage of the story about Switzerland banning the construction of minarets on mosques. For those of us accustomed to First Amendment-protected religious freedom, the vote probably comes as a shock and disappointment. Nairobi reader William Black wrote about a couple of the problems he saw in the coverage. He was disappointed with the vote saying that, as a Christian, he sees no reason to fear Muslim voices in the marketplace of ideas or Muslim presence in his neighborhood. And he worried that this vote would set a dangerous precedent for limiting the freedom of other religious groups in Europe. But the mainstream press should be looking at another angle, he wrote. He complained about the lack of coverage explaining how Muslim countries handle religious freedom on a routine basis. He asks how many Christian churches are being built today in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and other Muslim countries and:

How many Christian bookstores are allowed to market their resources in these countries? How many Christian charities are allowed to distribute aid? How many Christian missionaries are allowed to work in their neighborhoods? How many Muslims are free to convert to Christianity without fear of being killed?

Similar issues were also raised in a Washington Post op-ed by Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-born writer and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. After strongly criticizing the Swiss vote, she added a critique of how religious freedom is handled in some Muslim countries:

The Grand Mufti of Egypt, for example, denounced the ban as an "attack on freedom of belief." I would take him more seriously if he denounced in similar terms the difficulty Egyptian Christians face in building churches in his country. They must obtain a security permit just for renovations.

Last year, the first Catholic church -- bearing no cross, no bells and no steeple -- opened in Qatar, leaving Saudi Arabia the only country in the Persian Gulf that bars the building of houses of worship for non-Muslims. In Saudi Arabia, it is difficult even for Muslims who don't adhere to the ultra-orthodox Wahhabi sect; Shiites, for example, routinely face discrimination.

Bigotry must be condemned wherever it occurs. If majority-Muslim countries want to criticize the mistreatment of Muslims living as minority communities elsewhere, they should be prepared to withstand the same level of scrutiny regarding their own mistreatment of minorities. Millions of non-Muslim migrant workers have helped build Saudi Arabia. Human rights groups have long condemned the slave-like conditions that many toil under, and the possibility of Saudi citizenship is nonexistent. Muslim nations have been unwilling to criticize this bigotry in their midst, and Europeans should keep in mind that Sunday's ban takes them in this direction.

And yet many mainstream stories didn't even mention how religious freedom is handled in other countries, much less Muslim countries. This Wall Street Journal story about the vote went to Turkey for reaction and got this quote:

Cavid Aksin, an Istanbul metalworker, was angered that the referendum coincided with the end of one of the most important religious feasts in the Muslim calendar. "I think Turkey should have a referendum on whether to close down its churches," he said.

It might have been a good time to mention what happened in Turkey to this basilica, or this cathedral and its monks, and this seminary.

But at least one mainstream media outlet did raise the issue. Here's a bit from the Christian Science Monitor's article "Outrage on Swiss minaret vote, but how do Muslim states handle churches? Swiss minaret vote leads to Muslim anger, but the Swiss aren't alone in restricting religious freedom." Before reviewing the legal practices regarding religious freedom in Indonesia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, reporter Dan Murphy wrote:

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Muslim reaction across the world to Sunday's Swiss referendum banning the construction of further minarets for mosques in the tiny Alpine nation has been almost entirely negative.

Indonesia's Maskuri Abdillah, leader of the largest Muslim organization in the world's most populous Muslim nation said the vote reflected Swiss "hatred" of Islam and Muslims.

Egyptian Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, close to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, said the ban was an attempt to "insult the feelings of the Muslim community in and outside Switzerland."

Yet the referendums outcome pales in comparison to restrictions on non-Muslims who aim to practice their faith in Muslim lands. In fact, the vote only brought Swiss legal practice closer to that of many majority Muslim states that also place limits on the construction of houses of worship.

It seems like a discussion of how Muslim countries handle religious freedom would be an obvious point to mention when covering the reaction of Muslims to the vote. But this story is too brief. It seems important to show the range of Muslim treatment of religious freedom. Certainly Saudi Arabia isn't going to win any religious freedom awards any time soon (unless it's a "World's Worst" award or something) but even Iran has some religious freedom. If you're not Baha'i, that is. The point is, this is an important topic and the media desperately need to tell us more about the state of religious freedom abroad as well as what influences increased or decreased religious freedom. And it shouldn't be shocking that the Monitor raised the issue. Unfortunately it is.

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