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The Toronto Star

Why It Is Essential to Stand up to Bigots

Last winter, the Israelis attacked minarets in Gaza. Last month, the Swiss voted to ban non-existent minarets.

The reasons proffered in both cases were patently false.

Bombed Gaza mosques probed by Justice Richard Goldstone were found not to have been hiding Hamas arms or militants.

Minarets are definitely not proliferating in Switzerland, there being only four in a nation with 350,000 Muslims – most of them refugees, ironically, from European ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Minarets – aesthetically as pleasing or irritating as steeples, pagodas or onion domes – are a symbol of Islam. Those targeting them may use different methods but their mission is the same.

Thus the near-universal condemnation of the Swiss vote, including by the Canadian Jewish Congress. And calls for a consumer boycott of Nestlé, Credit Suisse, etc., as well as a tourist boycott of Switzerland.

Thus also the rejection of attempts to downplay the vote as a harmless exercise that won't limit the practice of Islam, a mere manifestation of an identity crisis amid Europeanization/globalization.

Equally, there's little traction for the argument by some Muslims that they should be explaining Islam better, as though good PR is the antidote to xenophobia and hate.

There's no sugar-coating what has transpired: Swiss church spires won't come down but minarets won't go up. Churches will continue to dominate the Swiss landscape but mosques must remain hidden.

Such Muslims-only rules, so reminiscent of some Nazi laws against Jews, have been popping up across Europe – and Canada:

German restrictions on mosques; the French ban on the hijab in schools; Canadian bans in soccer and tae kwon do tournaments; Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal to ban the niqab; Ontario's hysteria over letting Muslims use the Arbitration Act or having their religious schools funded; and Stephen Harper's bid to ban niqabi women from voting (while ignoring the 70,000 who cast absentee ballots in the last election without showing their faces).

While Europeans and North Americans have learned not to invoke free speech to peddle anti-Semitism, they routinely cite it to rationalize anti-Islamism (the Danish cartoons, and the tirades of Maclean's magazine, the National Post, etc.)

We are witnessing a strange phenomenon – again, akin to the 1930s – wherein a majority feels threatened by a minority, to the point of becoming blind to the most obvious answer to the oft-asked question of the day: how far to go in "accommodating" Muslims? No farther than for any other group and only as far as the rule of law permits.

The public seems equally oblivious to the fact that the fallout of prejudice has been hurting not just Muslims but mostly others:

It is Christians and Jews who lost out on religious arbitration because of the "sharia" controversy.

Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and other separate schools got side-swiped because of public opposition to "madrassas."

Jews, homosexuals and other vulnerable groups may find it harder to use the anti-hate provisions of human rights codes.

I remain agnostic on all three issues – but not about the irrationality they've engendered and the road kill they've produced.

To offer yet another example, Jews in Quebec, a well-integrated minority with an honourable history of contributions to the province, were dragged into the tide of anti-Muslim hostility during the "reasonable accommodation" crisis.

It follows that it's not Muslims who need defending – they can't possibly be demonized any more than they've been post-9/11 – but rather our secular democracies.

That was the lesson of the Taylor-Bouchard Commission, which called the bigots' bluff by asserting that there was no crisis, that minorities were not making unreasonable demands and that the media-fed hysteria was unbecoming of a mature democracy.

So the relevant Canadian lesson of the Swiss vote on minarets is this:

When liberals fail – as have Canada's Liberals and New Democrats – to stand up to demagogues, they commit the cardinal sin of silently watching the erosion of some of our most cherished collective values.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Haroon Siddiqui

Haroon Siddiqui is the Toronto Star's editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday (

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