By Syed B. Soharwardy
When I received the news that in Switzerland 57.5 percent of voters and 22 cantons (provinces) out of 26 cantons have voted to ban building of minarets on mosques, I was at a mosque in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I am the Lead Imam at the Al Madinah Calgary Islamic Centre. It is also called Al Madinah Masjid (Mosque). I had just finished the prayer and a member of our congregation gave me the Swiss news. I smiled and asked the brother to come outside. When we came out of the mosque, I took him around the mosque and asked, do you see any minarets on this mosque? He said, “no”. I said, “this place does not even look like a mosque from outside”. He smiled. He knew what this minaret less mosque has achieved within five years of its existence that many mosques with minarets could not achieve.
Al Madinah Calgary Islamic Centre was established in 2005. It is located in a shopping mall. We purchased two shops and converted them into a mosque. If the sign outside the mosque is removed, no one would even know that this is a place of worship for Muslims. In less than five years our congregation grew from 27 people to almost 2000 people. We have more than 200 girls and boys learning Qur’an and Islamic teachings. In less than five years 23 non-Muslim Calgarians embraced Islam at the Al Madinah Islamic Centre. Every year hundreds of Calgarians; Christians, Jews, Atheists, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and others visit the Al Madinah Centre and take part in the Interfaith Dialogues. 99% of those who attend the interfaith activities at the Al Madinah Centre change their attitude about Islam and Muslims. Their misconceptions and misunderstandings about Islam are removed. They appreciate that someone has helped them in removing those fears and distrust of Muslims that the media tries to build every day. In Ramadan, every year for one month, more than 200 Muslims and non-Muslims eat together at the sunset time at the Al Madinah Mosque.
The Interfaith activities at the Al Madinah Calgary Islamic Centre motivated me to walk across Canada, from Halifax to Victoria (6500 KM) as the lead walker of Multifaith Walk Against Violence. During this seven month long walk I met hundreds of non-Muslim Canadians and changed their opinions against Muslims and Islam. Did we need a mosque with minarets for this work? I don’t think so. We did it with a minaret less mosque and Insha Allah (God willing) we will continue on the path of building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Insha Allah (God willing), in future, we have plans to establish a Food Bank, Women’s Shelter, Temporary Residences for New Immigrants and a School in Calgary. We have already purchased 5 acres of land for these projects.
The issue of banning the minarets in Switzerland is not religious. It is a political issue. It should be handled politically. In politics, public opinions do count. It was the public opinion of 57.5% of Swiss voters that brought this ban. Public opinions do change and I am sure it will change. I am very thankful that neither the Swiss Muslims nor the worldwide Muslims reacted to this ban the way we reacted to the Danish Cartoons. Instead of taking the path of violence, which is against Islam we must choose the path of education, which is the way of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
The most important thing for Swiss Muslims is that the 42.5% Swiss voters were against this ban. They need to work on the 15% or less voters and help them to see the minaret issue the way 42.5% Swiss voters saw it. The Swiss Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the rightist Swiss People’s Party, or S.V.P., and a small religious party created Islamophobia in Switzerland. This can be changed provided that the Swiss Muslims remain loyal to Islam and Switzerland. The loyalty and sincerity with the country will change the hearts of those Swiss people who were supporting the ban yesterday.
Of 150 mosques or prayer rooms in Switzerland, only 4 have minarets, and only 2 more minarets were planned. There are about 400,000 Muslims in a population of some 7.5 million people. Switzerland's Muslim population is among the most moderate, and least foreign, in Europe. Of the country's 400,000 Muslims, representing less than 5 per cent of the population, the largest group are of European background, with ancestors from the historically Muslim Balkan countries of southeast Europe – in other words, they are as culturally and historically European as any Christian Swiss citizen.
The issue of minarets started in 2005 when the Turkish cultural association applied for a construction permit to erect a 6-metre-high minaret on the roof of its Islamic community centre in a small municipality which was opposed by the local community. After appeals and court cases the 6m minaret was constructed in July 2009. This has snowballed in to a controversy and became a political issue with the right-wing parties projecting the minarets as symbols of Islamic militancy.
One of the Swiss parliamentarians said,
“We don’t have anything against Muslims, But we don’t want minarets. The minaret is a symbol of a political and aggressive Islam; it’s a symbol of Islamic law. The minute you have minarets in Europe it means Islam will have taken over.”
This Swiss Parliamentarian saw life in minarets. For me minarets are just concrete and steel. The honour of a mosque is not in its minarets but it is in the hearts and minds of the people who pray inside the mosques. We do not need to build high towers on our mosques. We need to build our current and future generations to be the true representatives of Islam.
If only 25% of 400,000 Swiss Muslims establish dialogue with their neighbours, classmates, colleagues and other Swiss people and remove misunderstandings and the hate that some Islamophobe politicians have created in their minds, I am sure within a year the proponents of religious tolerance in Switzerland will win the next referendum. This will help in restoring the good image of Switzerland that has been tarnished due to few Swiss Islamophobes.
Moreover, about 7%, or 14.5 billion Swiss francs ($14.4 billion), of Swiss exports go to Muslim countries. Swiss economy needs markets in Muslim countries.
If the Swiss conservatives want to question the growth of Islam, they should establish dialogue with Swiss Muslims. I am sure they will find blessings in the growth of Islam. Christianity and Islam do not fear each other. It is the misguided Christians and Muslims that create fear of each other.
Although, the tragedy of 9/11, the terrorism around the world, the Danish cartoons, the Islamophobe movies, the ban on hijab in France and the ban on mosque minarets in Switzerland have helped in increasing Islamophobia and hate towards Muslims but these tragedies have also increased curiosity about Islam in the minds of millions of non-Muslims. And when a curious non-Muslim meets with the true follower of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and learn Islam, this non-Muslim embraces Islam without any hesitation. I strongly believe the current persecution of Islam will lead towards the renaissance of Islam. Muslims have to go through the current sufferings and chaos. The renaissance of Islam is just around the corner. That’s the way I see this. May Allah bring peace for everyone on earth. Amen.
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May God bless you and your congregation! Your faith and your gracious response to the often irrational and ignorant fear of Muslims is an example to those of us who are Christians!