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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Swiss ban on minarets

It's one thing to raise questions about the truth of religious doctrines or about the moral authority of religious organisations and leaders - something I approve of and encourage. It's another to seek that religious doctrines or practices be suppressed by the coercive power of the state - something that I totally oppose. People should be entitled, in law, to believe whatever seems true to them, without being regarded and treated as criminals. They should also be entitled to act on their beliefs, so long as they don't breach well-justified and fair laws of general application. We obviously need to have laws against murder, so nobody gets to plead her religion to justify human sacrifices to her god. But if what she does is lawful outside the context of her religion, it should be equally lawful inside that context.

As always, there are some grey areas, but we should always look at issues of substance, not mere formality. Take the recent decision in Switzerland to ban the building of minarets. I suppose one extreme justification of this law might be that it applies equally to Muslims and others - it's not discriminatory against Muslims because no one, Muslim or not, is henceforth allowed to build a minaret. But that would be a silly argument. The law specifically forbids an activity associated with one religion: Islam. It unfairly burdens just one religion, and it can't be justified on secular grounds. If the problem is buildings above a certain height, then all buildings above that height should be forbidden. If the problem is with certain loud noises, then all loud noises should be forbidden at whatever times of day are appropriate. Singling out minarets is a clear attack on Islam as such, and hence a breach of the doctrines of separation of church (and mosque, etc.) and state and of freedom of religion.

I see that even the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain has condemned Switzerland's actions. This organisation is fiercely secular, and strongly opposes political forms of Islam. Some of its policies do stray into uncomfortable territory where freedom-of-religion issues arise (e.g. its policy of banning faith-based schools). But it is absolutely correct to state the following: The Enlightenment didn't ban church towers in order to successfully push Christianity into the private sphere. The same must be done with political Islam.

Quite so. Political Islam must be opposed, but that does not justify using the law to harm and stigmatise Muslims, many of whom are doubtless as disenchanted with political Islam as any atheist or freethinker. Again:

Believing in Islam or any religion for that matter is not a crime. Neither is it a crime to have minarets in mosques. What are crimes, however, are groups or individuals using religion to threaten people to death, intimidate them, violate their rights, and discriminate against them. Society has to address these crimes and prosecute those who threaten or terrorise people - not ban minarets!

Absolutely right!


NewEnglandBob said...

You are absolutely correct on this Russell and the Swiss know that. It will be overturned. I think they just wanted to feel like they were doing something for a little while.

Unknown said...

Other than stonemasons, who is harmed by this ban on minarets?

Russell Blackford said...

lol, who would be harmed by a ban on Christmas carols other than the people who want to sing them (and the people who print them and sell them, etc)? I'm sorry, yashwata, but that is a weird approach to justifying state coercion.

Unknown said...

I agree, a ban on Christmas carols would deprive many people of (relatively) harmless pleasures. What pleasure does anyone derive from minarets?

Anonymous said...

"The Enlightenment didn't ban church towers in order to successfully push Christianity into the private sphere. The same must be done with political Islam."

Which Enlightenment? Far worse than that was done in France!

J. J. Ramsey said...

yashwata: "Other than stonemasons, who is harmed by this ban on minarets?"

There is the whole issue of setting legal precedents. If a legislature can ban one particular symbol, that opens the door to banning other symbols--including symbols of ideas that we would consider worthwhile.

Unknown said...

J.J.: I see, that is a problem. Also, the imams could easily come up with a new symbol to replace minarets. And the new symbol would have extra excitement about it, as being a way around the ban. I think you all are right. Te best way to combat religious misbehavior is to remember that it is already illegal -- beating one's wife, for example. We need to deny the religious their traditional exemption from well-accepted norms.

Russell Blackford said...

Yashwata, if people didn't derive any pleasure from minarets they wouldn't build (or commission) them. At least if we define "pleasure" in a reasonably broad way. But anyway, I see that JJ has persuaded you, so thanks for being prepared to think about this and change your mind. That's always impressive.

Unknown said...

Russell -- yes, I probably agree with you on the ban but you've overlooked a crucial fact. Minarets are built to provide pleasure for a small number of people at a significant cost to everyone else. And this small number of people is not the Muslims. It is the Muslim imams against everyone else, including all the Muslims who are not imams.

In saying that "if people didn't derive any pleasure from minarets they wouldn't build (or commission) them", you forget that religious organizations are not homogeneous. They have two layers: the professionals, who get paid, and the amateurs, who pay. It is a practically universal mistake to think that all the participants have the same interests. As soon as you assume that, you cannot understand religion at all. Religion, like the Mafia, exists for the benefit of its promoters, not its customers.

Minarets don't get built because a group of people are in the mood to glorify Allah. They get built because a small group of entrepreneurs sees this as a way to attract and retain customers. The amateurs of the group derive no benefit from the minarets - certainly none commensurate with their cost, which the amateurs pay out of their own pockets. The benefits all devolve to the professionals, the imams, mullahs, whatever they're called. They spearhead and supervise the magnificent construction. They get the glory - and a steady paycheck. The amateurs get the bill.

This is what made me HOPE that BANNING the construction of minarets might actually be a good idea. They are not good for anyone, except for the local, self-appointed dons and warlords.

Russell Blackford said...

We also have to beware of tyranny of the majority issues. I'm not a utilitarian, but even if we analyse it in purely utilitarian terms, the long-run effect of allowing the majority to impose its will on a minority is likely to offset any short term preponderance of utility in favour of banning symbols. The reasons include those you've been discussing - the insecurity that starts being created for everyone if we adopt a practice of doing this; the kinds of responses that arise (which may make the action counterproductive); the need to take truly draconian action if we are going to suppress the predictable responses; the importance of keeping civil peace in pluralistic societies; and so on.

So even if I were clear that minarets symbolise something very nasty - Muslim triumphalism for example - and even if I thought that most people greatly wanted to ban the expression of such ideas, long-term utilitarian considerations alone would impel me down the path of opposing such a ban. I guess you agree with this.

In fact, though, I tend to argue directly from liberal principles such as those espoused by Mill: freedom of expression; separation of religion and state; the harm principle; etc. It still seems to me that those principles have worked well when actually applied, and that we should be very reluctant to re-open debate about their value (which is not to say that they are our very deepest principles or that they can never be set aside in any circumstances whatsoever, not matter the consequences).

The harm principle is quite salient here - it tells us not to ban something unless it causes significant, tangible, secular, direct harm. If something causes indirect harm - e.g. via people's response to a message - we try to minimise the harm in less intrusive ways. Given the meaning of "indirect" that is being used here, any significant harm done by minarets, even if they have a triumphalist message or whatever, is indirect.

Unknown said...

So what should the Swiss (and all the rest of us) DO about these guys who come over assume the role of "leader" and convince all their "followers" to waste what little money they have on horrible architectural advertisements for their chosen fraud? This is not a rhetorical question. What are we going to do? These "holy men" are vile, greedy, horrible people and we have to stop them from getting away with this crap. Where do we start?

J.J. Emerson said...

@ yashwata

In the face of an invasion of a retrograde philosophy emphasizing tribalism, superstition, misogyny, authoritarianism, and terrorism, it is IMPERATIVE that we act now! In order to curb the disgusting excesses of radical Islam and show the superiority of a pluralistic, liberal, democratic, secular worldview we absolutely MUST...<drumroll>... ban minarets!!

Wait, what?

Sure, I'd like to give those atavistic Muslims a poke in the eye as much as I'd like trash anyone who preaches evil dogmas. And I admit that it "feels right" to reassert the "western" (read: Christian) dominance. But seriously, can anyone imagine a more impotent (I mean utterly flaccid) reaction to a mere symptom when a vigorous attack on the root cause is called for?

This banning of the minarets is a lazy, effete, emotional, reactionary, and ineffectual reaction borne of the desire to "do something, anything, even if it's wrong". Of course, doing the difficult thing would require work and questioning cherished dogmas; i.e. addressing morality and ethics without the crutch of religion and enforcing those conclusions even when they conflict with religion.

In other words, to defeat Islam, Christianity must cede its moral authority to non-sectarian (i.e. secular) sources.

Or we could just ban minarets and call it a day.

Unknown said...

"to defeat Islam, Christianity must cede its moral authority to non-sectarian (i.e. secular) sources"

OK, J.E.E., what's the first step toward getting Christianity to do that? I'm NOT saying that it's banning minarets (which is now starting to sound like an idiom - cf. 'jumping the broom' or 'kicking the bucket'). I'm asking for suggestions. Tell me what to do.

This is not snark or reverse psychology or anything. I am simply asking whether any of Russell's readers have suggestions for a simple, practical first step we secularists can take toward the disempowerment of the theocrats. Maybe there is no such step. If there is one, I'd love to know about it.

J.J. Emerson said...

Pretty easy to list them:

Get rid of state religions.

Get rid of all religious coddling (Churches are no longer tax free, and only registered charity arms can be, but only if they aren't proselyting; get rid of "hate speech" laws, especially as pertains to religion; you get the idea).

High quality compulsory secular education (religious education is optional and must be undertaken IN ADDITION to not as a substitute for non-sectarian secular education).

Citizenship participation requirements (citizens ought to know and value the ideals of the nation they inhabit, including universal suffrage, individual autonomy, etc; if they don't like it, they can bugger off to some place that doesn't have such restrictions, and likely doesn't have clean water either).


Of course, in order to do that, it must be universal, across-the-board, with no exceptions for Christianity, or it loses authority and becomes the very picture of hypocrisy. I can just barely see this happening in various places in Scandanavia under the right circumstances (i.e. Sweden is more likely than Norway). But the rest of Europe seems like it will be a while before that happens.

As for the U.S., well that place is dynamic. In the next 50 years? Hell no. In 60? Who knows? The U.S. youth is very secular (or at least very weak in faith) compared to the older generation and very well could surprise us. I still think it will be unlikely in our lifetime.

BUT! I think this is worth preparing the groundwork for even if it won't be realized in our lifetimes.

In any event, banning minarets is WAY down on the list of things to do, just one place below banning the flying of national flags. What would be defensible (if perhaps not strategically sound RIGHT NOW) would be the banning of blatant religious garb in schools. (Jew can cover their heads and Muslim girls can wear long sleeves, and Mormons can wear their magical underoos, but the burqa for Muslims and the kolpik for Hasids are off-limits at school).

Kinda like what France did. I think that's a little premature, but I do think it is acceptable in principle, but maybe not timely.

How's that for starters?

Unknown said...

Real food for thought there. Thanks.

NewEnglandBob said...

J.J.E said:

"How's that for starters?"

I think you got it exactly correct, J.J.E., although it will be tough to implement, so we should get started.

Anonymous said...

Would the Swiss muslims be allowed to build minarets that look almost like church towers?

Russell Blackford said...

The main things to bear in mind is that not every social problem is best handled as a problem for governments. Arguably, governments have a fairly limited role - to keep the peace, provide a social/economic safety net, cooperate with foreign governments on threats that require an international solution (such as global warming), maybe a few other things. They are not well placed to determine the truth or otherwise of religious doctrines or the nature of the good life or the virtuous character.

Often, for example, the solution to bad speech is simply better speech from its opponents.

And even if something is a government problem, governments have a lot of tools that may still be rather clumsy but are a lot less clumsy and intrusive than outright bans. Prohibitions, the criminal law, and so on, are really a last resort when we try to formulate public policy.

Unknown said...

Those are good points, Russell. But I still feel you're missing the point when you say that "Often ... the solution to bad speech is simply better speech from its opponents." The problem with religion is not in what its proponents say, it's what they do: rape, torture, murder, things like that - things that every civilized person recognizes are wrong, *except* when they've been depersonalized by overwhelming social pressures such as are generated by religion, the military, and so on. How do we get people to recognize that those norms always apply, that (for example) rape is always wrong?