Crucifixes and Minarets: Europe at a Crossroads

Crucifixes and Minarets: Europe at a Crossroads

In her book, “The Rage and The Pride,” with words now made prophetic, the late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci wrote: “Our cultural identity cannot support a wave of migration composed of persons who in one way or another want to change our way of life and our values. I’m telling you that where we are … in Italy, in Europe … there’s no room for muezzins, minarets, for fake teetotalers, for their damn chadors and their frigging burkas.” Recently, in voting booths across their nation, 57.7 percent of Swiss voters found themselves in agreement with Fallaci, as they moved to support an initiative that prohibits the construction of new minarets in that country.

Two weeks earlier, in Italy, Cardinal Bertone, responding to the controversial ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that determined that the presence of the crucifix in Italian public schools violated both a student’s right to religious freedom and parents’ right to educate their children in accordance with their own convictions, said: “This Europe of the third millennium leaves us with only the pumpkins of Halloween, and takes away our most precious symbols.” These sentiments were echoed by Italian authorities and the Italian Episcopal Conference, which issued a press release declaring that the crucifix was not merely a religious sign, but also a cultural marker that symbolized the fundamental role that religious values have played in the history and heritage of the Italian people. Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi agreed, adding that “religion is an essential component of our civilization; for this reason it is wrong and myopic to want to exclude it from the reality of contemporary education.”

These two separate incidents, while moving in opposite directions, share a common theme: neither the will of the Swiss electorate nor the opinions of Italian and Vatican officials represent a desire for peaceful coexistence between religions and cultures. The Swiss are overcome with dread of the abstract danger of “the Islamization of the country,” as Walter Wobmann, head of the “Yes” anti-minaret campaign, put it. And the Italians are scared of losing a national identity that is linked with Catholicism, the majority religion. Both situations provide us with an opportunity to adjust the criterion of European justice, and to reflect upon the concept of European citizenship.

The idea of justice is associated with the respect of fundamental rights and the idea of equality as parity. The ban on constructing minarets directly violates, among others, the right to worship and freedom of expression, liberties that are widely recognized in international treaties ratified by Switzerland. To limit the exercise of a fundamental right for imaginary reasons represents a very serious regression in the spread of democratic guarantees. To support the Swiss initiative is to legitimate the discourses that stereotype Islam as a violent and destabilizing force. To portray, as the “Yes” campaign has, minarets (there are only four in all of Switzerland, incidentally), that are sculpted in the form of missiles and flanked by a dark and ominous image of a veiled woman is to relegate Swiss Muslims to a barbarous underclass populated by suspicious characters and potential terrorists. Obviously, this type of discrimination and expulsion from the public sphere is not the best way to bring about social cohesion.

Similarly, in the Italian case, government imposition of a religious symbol of a particular domination in a public school is no way to foster the peaceful coexistence of different beliefs and non-beliefs. No one denies the cultural significance of the crucifix, and no one questions the importance of Christian values in European constitutional history, but the cross is, first and foremost, a Christian symbol. As such, it makes sense to leave it outside of the secular classroom, because the symbol could easily be harmful to the beliefs of non-Christian students. Negative liberty endows a student with the right to not participate in acts of worship that belong to a religion that he or she does not profess. This is not to say that young people have the right to be sheltered from all religious symbols. On the contrary, the classroom is a vital space for the expression of plurality and difference, just as it is expressed in society in general. But there exists a substantial difference between the exhibition of a religious symbol as a result of a decision of a public authority, and the worship of a religious symbol as a result of an individual’s decision. The State must not identify with any religion.

European secularism needs to remain flexible and be attentive to the excesses of secularism, discrimination against practitioners of minority faiths and the coercions of the cultures of majority faiths. Messages of exclusion and imposition, Swiss and Italian respectively, could not be further from that contemporary Europeanism that cherishes the notion of diversity just as much as equality; for the official motto of the European Union, mind you, is “Unity in Diversity.” The essential task of European citizenship, then, is to create a common ethics that welcomes diversity.

To take multiculturalism and pluralism seriously in our Europe means doing away with marginalization, indifference and hegemonic crosses. The ideal of universalism is built from the recognition of equality and fundamental rights, and so the realization of these principles entails eliminating the restrictions to freedom and guaranteeing liberty for all people; it entails respecting and uniting believers of different faiths and also non-believers. To prohibit and impose excludes and divides, it does not unite, and it dissolves the bonds between fellow citizens. This road leads not to peace and social harmony, nor to an inclusive and pluralistic European citizenship.

Eugenia Relaño Pastor is professor of ecclesiastical law at The Complutense University of Madrid.

Translation: Ryan Croken.

Ryan Croken is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. His essays and book reviews have appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Z Magazine and ReligionDispatches.org. He can be reached at ryan.croken@gmail.com.