So the Swiss have voted to ban building of minarets.

This is not an architectural decision. They have planning laws and have already used them, which is why there only 4 minarets in Switzerland at the time of writing.

Neither is this intrinsically about racism or anti Islam. The religion is perfectly well protected and supported, and there are many mosques around Switzerland. The religion is not being attacked. Even the associated cultural practises are happily accommodated. If it were racist, it would not have gained such popular support. It’s 2010, and the Swiss are broadly very wise, civil, and accommodating, with strong emphasis on working together and appropriate procedures for doing so. There’s a reason they host the UN.

And do not be swayed by the ad hominem attack

Can a civilised people be so ill at ease and low on confidence that the specific design of a handful of buildings be construed as a threat to the country’s national heritage, identity and culture? (Al Jazeera)

To give it an ad hominem reproach: Can a civilised people be so ill at ease and low on confidence that they have to seek comfort in an imaginary friend, and then build towers so their voices can carry to tell more people about it so they don’t seem to be quite as foolish as they would appear if they were alone in their delusion?

But giving this question a more reasonable answer brings us to the crux of the matter.

This is a defensive vote on the obstinate problem of cultural identity.

When brewers find a yeast that really works well for them and produces lovely beer time after time, they want to keep it just the way it is so they can keep on making a living, and keep making great beer. But yeast evolves and changes, and after a while the beer begins to taste different. So they take a batch and preserve it, and when the beer begins to change taste they flush the vats, repopulate them with the original yeast, and start again.

Can we preserve cultural identity whilst being welcoming to new cultures? Is the Swiss culture worth preserving? Should they be punished for seeking to do so? Can seemingly conflicting cultures coexist peacefully?

Since this will still be perceived by some to be a religious issue, and because I can never resist a poke at religion, let’s note that the Gods haven’t found it very easy to deal with cultures they don’t approve of. In Christianity, God killed everyone when he didn’t like the way the culture had turned. Everyone except Noah, whom he preserved, before flushing out the rest, and asked him to repopulate. Then somewhere along the line he spawned the Chosen People, thus creating another barrier to divide mankind. In Islam, the Koran frequently asks followers to kill non-believers, thus suggesting that cultural mixing is NOT the way Allah likes it, either.

But since this is the real world, societies, and the people who comprise them, try to do better than this. Make-believe invisible friends don’t command floods very often, so we have to deal with what we evolve into.

If we choose to, we can also try to steer what our society evolves into so that we retain the flavours we like, and preserve the things that work for us. Indeed, we already do this. All regulation, all government, and all laws exist for this very purpose. Indeed most countries even have legislation about who they allow to immigrate, because they want their country to take a certain direction. Is this Swiss vote much further down the continuum than this?

This is a defensive action. The Swiss simply seek to preserve their own culture and have elected to take passive, non-aggressive steps to do so. And quite right too. They have had a peaceful, neutral, democracy for over 700 years – thus arguably an excellent model of cultural success. This is something to be astonishingly proud of, and any new comer – especially one from the fractious Balkans – would do well to try to learn a thing or two here about how to live in peaceful harmony. What the Swiss have created is incredibly worthy of preservation.

In agriculture many prefer a broad variety of species, each adapted to its local environment, and consumed by its local inhabitants. Some of these crops require a critical mass, and sometimes environmental preservation, to be able to continue to thrive. Frequently, these species can not compete in the short term with non-local varieties. And yet it is only after they have gone that we realise the key role they played in the local ecosystem.

In fact I’m bored of writing this.

Summary: religion is stupid, culture is important and requires diversity, diversity should be preserved. There’s plenty of space in the world to build minarets and be Islamic, but there’s only a very small amount of space in the world to be Switzerland.

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