Why the Swiss Were Right to Prohibit Construction of Minarets

“Islam is an all-encompassing ideology”: this is Mauwdudi’s motto. In other words, a society has not been Islamized until all manifestations of life -- all social and political institutions -- are governed according to Islamic principles.  The objective is not only to develop an Islamic state with Islamic law, but also an Islamic economy, Islamic science, and so on.  Will anyone dare to liken such an ideology to the established church community in the West or to mainstream contemporary interpretations of Christianity?

One has to wonder: What is it about Islam that makes this religion -- especially in its organized form -- tip over so easily into politics and law? The problem began with its founder, Muhammed, his principal message, and his actions, which make Islam far more difficult to reform and secularize than Christianity. As the Danish philosopher Kai Sørlander has observed, Islam and Christianity are not at all similar phenomena, but are, on the contrary, radically different. In fact, Sørlander maintains that Christianity’s core message itself played a critical role in the revocation of the clergy’s temporal power, while the opposite has happened in large portions of the Islam-dominated parts of the world.

But why should we care about such things in these modern times? Can’t people just be allowed to believe that a church spire and a minaret symbolize pretty much the same values and ways of thinking -- that the religions, in short, are twins? Sørlander’s answer to this is as follows: It’s important to understand that if democracy “has developed and put down its roots in certain societies, but not in others, it can be because of a difference between the religions that have prevailed in those different places.  If one prefers that people who live in democracies be blind to this difference, then one is not helping to strengthen democracy. On the contrary, one is helping to weaken its ability to preserve itself.”

Before I go further, I want to make one thing clear: I realize that I am entering an area here that has already become a minefield in public debate. Many think that it’s better, in the interests of harmony and understanding, to avoid discussion of Islam’s basic premises and thus steer clear of needless conflict and keep from offending Muslims.

I believe, however, that if we don’t have this debate about the challenges Islam poses to our democratic societies, we will one day discover that key elements of Islam -- elements that make it difficult for an Enlightenment to occur among the Muslim population -- have taken root in our own backyard. What is the greater danger: That an open discussion will intensify tensions for an unforeseeable period, or that the problems will be allowed to grow until they are past any hope of resolution -- all because we retreated from an uncomfortable situation? Besides, if it’s really true that our democracy can’t tolerate an open discussion of this topic, doesn’t that mean that our democracy is already critically weakened?

I wish to make yet another major point: To discuss Islam and Christianity from the perspective of secularism and democracy is not to view Islam as being of lesser value than Christianity. On the contrary, it is a question of examining historical events that may help us to understand and be aware of the ways in which these two religions have functioned under different sociopolitical systems. What is condescending is not to take Islam seriously as a belief system.

How to comprehend the key difference between Islam and Christianity in regard to the separation of politics from religion? Kai Sørlander’s answer is to look at the two religions’ core messages, as expressed at the time of their founding -- in other words, to go back to the religions’ first messengers, Jesus and Muhammed. Christianity is based on Jesus’s life and preaching, as recounted in the New Testament, while Islam is based on Muhammed’s life and preaching, as recounted in the Koran and the various hadith collections (accounts of Muhammed’s acts and sayings). These two men’s lives and teachings are radically different. Jesus never sought political power, but must rather be characterized as socially engaged. He drew a clear line between this world and the next, which is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the passage in Matthew about “render[ing] unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” Jesus was, moreover, a pacifist who allowed himself to be crucified without resistance. Nor did he introduce a new set of laws; on the contrary, he revoked brutal edicts that dated back to the time of Moses and that were set down in the Old Testament.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is found in John’s gospel, in which the scribes and Pharisees come to Jesus with a woman taken in adultery: “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” Jesus’ reply: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” When the scribes and Pharisees left, Jesus told the woman: “Neither do I condemn thee.”  Indeed, Jesus commanded his disciples to “turn the other cheek,” told them “judge ye not,” and said “love thine enemy.” These commandments cannot easily be translated into legislation. As Sørlander points out, in fact, such commandments would undermine the power of any state. For example, Sørlander asks: “What good is an army that turns the other cheek?”