Professor: Debate over ‘Muslims in Europe’ not really about religion

Switzerland made headlines last year when voters approved a ban on the construction of new minarets—the tall structures attached to Mosques. It was high-profile proof that the country is also having difficulty coming to terms with a more diversified citizenry. And now two other cases are raising a public debate about cultures in Switzerland. WRS’s Tony Ganzer reports.

Early last month some Muslim families pulled their children out of state-mandated swim classes in Basel, citing religious concerns—they didn’t want boys and girls co-mingling in the same course. As a result the families were fined.

And yesterday in St. Gallen officials recommended a ban on headscarves in schools, saying a ban could help prevent discrimination of Muslim students by promoting openness.

MAURUS REINKOWSKI: “On a general plane it’s an issue which will have to face whenever societies are trying to mingle or to integrate a larger part of people into a society. So I think on a general plane it is not related to religion.”

Maurus Reinkowski is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Basel. He sees parallels to debates over guest workers from past decades, which brought large numbers of Italian, Spanish, Turkish and Eastern European workers to Switzerland and Germany. Those workers were often talked about only by ethnicity, and something similar is happening with Muslims.

REINKOWSKI: “We are not willing any longer to talk about people from Muslim countries individually, on an individual scale. So stressing that somebody is an Alevi from Turkey or Shii from Iran, but then that we tend to understand all people from Muslim countries primarily as Muslims.”

Max Frisch, Swiss author, wrote about the Gastarbeiter and the guest workers, and he said ‘we asked for workers but we got people instead.’ And it was kind of a shift in thinking that it’s not just a group of people, but a group of individuals who are coming. Is that the same here, that people need to really bring it down on a one-to-one level to understand?

REINKOWSKI: “This remark by Frisch is an astute remark, and is still valid. One could say that we thought we would bring in people from less-developed countries and then it turned out that they have a different identity, and they want to stress the different identity. So on the one hand we have this general, or let’s say social phenomenon or mass phenomenon. On the other hand we have to stress again and again that we will not have to talk about the Muslims as a complete entity but that they are very, very individual. And it is clear also from these cases now from Basel that it’s not related to the whole community of Muslims in Basel but only to a very, very small group.”

Reinkowski urges calm in the debate over Muslims in Europe, especially in small incidents like that of the parents pulling their children from swim classes. He says the families probably just acted to preserve a sense of modesty and propriety in their kids.

But Reinkowski also says this debate is on-going, and will be frustrating at times, and while debating we all need to be patient and must remember to relax.

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