Muslim leaders of some of the major international Islamic organizations seem to have joined the Swiss population in a competition for who can come up with the most counter-productive approach to building a stable society that promotes human flourishing amid religious diversity.
First, the Swiss population voted in favor of a ban on the construction of minarets. This was a bad day for religious freedom, and the vote seemed to stand in stark contrast toArticle 15 of the Federal Swiss Constitution, which protects religious freedom.
Next, instead of seizing the opportunity to advocate for human rights per se and for universal religious freedom, some key Muslim leaders lined up to complain about the West. The only element their complaints had in common was the absence of advocacy for religious freedom in their own countries. Granted, some of them gave a passing nod to “human rights,” but again and again their criticism of the Swiss ban was about how the Swiss and other western countries deal with their Muslim populations. That this ban sets a harmful precedent for all multi-faith populations, including the ones where they’re in the majority, seems to have escaped them.
Three Muslim leaders seem to be striving to outdo the Swiss population: Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the OIC Ambassadorial Group, and Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt who is the most senior official interpreter of Islamic law for the Egyptian government.
The response of Secretary General Ihsanoglu to the Swiss minaret ban vote was one of “disappointment” and “concern.” As a Muslim leader, he has good reason to be concerned. After all, verse 2:256 of the Quran makes an injunction against religious coercion. But where is Ihsanoglu’s “disappointment” and “concern” about countries with Muslim majorities ignoring the injunction of Quran verse 2:256 against religious coercion, by their intimidation, punishment, and death sentences to discourage apostasy?
To be fair, in his statement Ihsanoglu did mention the existence of “universal human rights.” But the conclusion he draws is that “the decision of the Swiss people stood to be interpreted as xenophobic, prejudiced, discriminative . . . and it would tarnish the reputation of the Swiss people as a tolerant and progressive society.” The broader implications of the Swiss minaret ban for religious freedom, the real reason this vote is so troubling and alarming, seem lost on (or perhaps just too uncomfortable for?) Ihsanoglu.
Earlier this month, the press release for Ihsanoglu’s Message on Human Rights Day found time to devote a whole paragraph to condemning Israel, but nowhere in the document does he include advocacy for religious freedom. He mentions “religious diversity” in passing, but strangely, even bizarrely, the OIC, a religious organization, does not seem to have an interest in religious freedom as a core component of human rights.
Ihsanoglu’s remarks about universal human rights reveal more about hesitation than about endorsement. In his Human Rights Day Message, Ihsanoglu stated, “I would also like to reiterate once more my call to all OIC Member States and to the international community at large as well to give full consideration to the developmental challenges which constitute serious obstacles in implementing the noble objectives of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” So, he does call for some internal house-cleaning, good, but his language of “developmental challenges” exudes obfuscation. And then: “noble objectives”? This seems to suggest that human rights are just nice-sounding ideas, but really not something anyone takes seriously, not something actually to strive for, concretely, not something for which violators need to be held accountable.
Next in line to compete with the Swiss population is the OIC Ambassadorial Group in Geneva which sent a letter to the Swiss government strongly condemning “the discriminatory decision to ban constructing minarets.” If the OIC Ambassadorial Group is now concerned about discriminatory decisions, when are they going to condemn and seek to eliminate violations of religious freedom by OIC member countries against Muslim dissenters, non-Muslim religious believers, and those of no faith?
In the letter, they explained that their concern was that “the decision was a manifest attack on an Islamic symbol which could only serve to spread hatred and intolerance towards Muslims in general and those living in Switzerland in particular.”
The press release about this letter explains that “the OIC Group has consistently pointed towards the xenophobic and Islamophobic trends in Western societies.” They themselves admit that their finger-pointing at Western countries has been “consistent.” And they continue in this vein, explaining that “the OIC Ambassadors further hope that sustained efforts would be made by the Swiss authorities in particular and western authorities in general, including the civil society, to fight the scourge of discrimination and xenophobia.”
The OIC Ambassadorial Group’s criticism of the Swiss minaret ban is narrow; they assert that “this ban also stands in sharp contradiction to Switzerland’s international human rights obligations concerning freedom of expression, conscience and religion.” Again they sidestep advocating for universal religious freedom and recognizing their own human rights obligations.
How can countering discrimination be meaningful if it is only the big-bad-West which is to blame? Without universal principles and a core shared concept of human dignity, including the right to religious freedom, efforts to counter religious discrimination lack foundation.
The next competitor who has entered this race to find the most counter-productive approach to building stability and human flourishing amid religious diversity is Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa.
Gomaa’s first criticism of the minaret ban vote is that he considers it “an attack on freedom of beliefs.” Granted, he deserves some credit for supporting “freedom of beliefs.” However, effectively countering discrimination such as the Swiss minaret ban has got to go beyond just “freedom of beliefs.” Religious freedom is more than just freedom to believe. Religious freedom, to be meaningful, includes freedom to enter and exit a religion or to choose not to believe; it includes freedom to worship communally, and freedom to engage in the public square as believers. The Grand Mufti had a grand opportunity to defend religious freedom, and yet his response was to sidestep. Perhaps Egypt’s own track record of respecting religious freedom on paper but then using bureaucratic hurdles to block Christians from renovating churches, (and denying Egyptian Bahais basic Egyptian identity cards, to note another example) gave Ali Gomaa pause.
It is important to note that in response to the Swiss minaret ban some Muslims in charge of local community-level groups and writing in newspapers called for calm and noted that poor treatment of minorities in many Muslim-majority communities makes criticism of the Swiss minaret ban difficult.
At the international level, however, credibility in advocacy for human rights, including religious freedom, is at stake for all parties: the Swiss, the OIC, and the Grand Mufti. If the Swiss vote is upheld, there is a danger that Switzerland will end up in the position many Muslim-majority countries are in—hypocritically demanding liberty for their citizens living as religious minorities in other countries while they restrict the rights of religious minorities at home. As for bodies such as Al-Azhar and the OIC, their own silence and obfuscation on religious freedom, starting in their own countries, undermines their credibility even before they open their mouths.
As for Ihsanoglu, the OIC Ambassadorial Group, and Ali Gomaa, if they want to exercise effective leadership, to provide a substantive challenge the Swiss minaret-ban vote, they first need to become credible advocates for religious freedom. They need to start at home to advocate and take steps to realize religious freedom on their own door steps. Short of this, their complaints against the Swiss carry about as much weight as individual snowflakes falling onto the Alps. In the end, their complaints are not just inconsequential, but are harmful, like adding fuel to a fire, because rather than countering the Swiss minaret-ban in principle, they endorse the Swiss population’s selective discrimination by exercising selective “rights” advocacy. Only with credibility established by a substantive, coherent, universal track record of advocating and enforcing religious freedom can the engagement of Muslim leaders credibly rebuff religious discrimination in Switzerland.