Of bells and minarets. By René Guitton

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When Jerusalem was conquered in 635 AD, the second caliph Omar Ibn Al-Kattab refused to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, despite an invitation from the Christian patriarch Sophronius, for fear that his men invoke the precedent to turn the place of worship into a mosque and thus deprive the Christians of their right to freely practice their religion.
Although 1,400 years have passed, people were sometimes more civilised and more tolerant then than in our modern world, where passions and tensions seem to have translated into a return of fanaticism and religious intolerance.
The example set by Omar, the inventor of dhimmitude, the code governing the life of non-Muslims under Islamic law, is symbolic of the covenant bearing his name, which granted the "People of the Book" (a term which refers to Jews and Christians) the right to live on Muslim-majority or Muslim-ruled lands and possess their own places of worship. Is it possible to imagine Jerusalem, Aleppo, Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Tunis, Algiers, Casablanca, without their lace-like filigree of church towers, minarets and sometimes synagogue cupolas soaring up to the sky like so many ladders guiding the prayers of the faithful up to their God?
The complicated Middle East of bygone eras provides a simple lesson for today, one that it sometimes finds hard to follow because it finds itself riddled by deep contradictions and attempts toward religious uniformity.
This situation, which has been exemplified by Switzerland on 29 November with the adoption of a law prohibiting the construction of minarets on its soil, risks promoting a rejection of the "other" and the unconditional right to pray as one chooses.
The incident would be trivial if it were not, in a sense, tragic. It is difficult to fathom how Switzerland, a country that prides itself in its centuries-old neutrality, could feel that its existence and culture are threatened by the construction of minarets.
Regardless of the factors inspiring the bill, many feel its results primarily expressed a rejection of Islam and the right of Muslims to practice their rites freely wherever they live.
However, the Swiss referendum results do not only affect Muslims, although they are its main victims. It also risks institutionalising the so-called "clash of civilisations", leaving it up to citizens, or their elected representatives, to decree lifestyles and mindsets as a function of demographic majorities.
With this type of reasoning, a ban on the construction of minarets in countries where non-Muslims constitute the majority could also apply to the construction of churches or synagogues in Muslim-majority countries. In this regard, ethno-religious uniformity and viewing religion as a monolith risks reviving the post-Reformation concept of one people, one country, one religion, in which the ruler's religion determined that of a country's.
The absurd application of this principle is responsible for the disappearance of the time when Spain was known for its three religions, when the Jews and Moriscos (Muslims forced to convert to Christianity and suspected of doing so in name only) were expelled at the time of the Renaissance, a move that resulted in the spiritual and material impoverishment of the Iberian Peninsula. The same principle inspired many a totalitarian regime in the modern era, in an effort to remove any spiritual element that might threaten their rule. The same principle is again at work today in many regions of the planet where being a member of a minority is synonymous with inequality.
Those who reject the construction of minarets in Switzerland do not realise that they could be viewed in the future like those who burnt synagogues or destroyed churches in what was known as the Fertile Crescent, or elsewhere. It is worth recalling that whenever a community is threatened, be it Jewish, Christian, Muslim, agnostic or atheist, others could be threatened too.
The spiral is now set in motion and could wreak its horrendous effects unless we stand up to reaffirm that the pre-eminent dignity of every human being, and the right for every person of faith to pray to his or her God as he or she sees fit, are not subject to a building permit.
The minarets of Geneva are worth as much as the bells of Basel. Now is the time for one and all to remember this.

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* René Guitton, a writer and essayist, is a member of the Alliance of Civilizations and has recently been awarded the 2009 Human Rights Prize. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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