Monday, 30 November 2009

The bells, the bells. Oh, and the Swiss

Well, that’s a turn-up for the books: the Swiss have banned minarets. And by a big majority, too. More of a turn-down, really: don’t think this has anything to do with protecting Swiss culture or values – it’s a reversal of both. There was a time when Switzerland was the most generous nation of Europe, taking more refugees per head of its own population than any other. But the trouble is that the generous, liberal majority woke resentment in a xenophobic minority that’s now kicking back, as it has in Denmark and Holland.

There was a time when I used to be amazed by how the Swiss welcomed the unfortunate of the world. There was a civil war in Sri Lanka: the streets of Geneva, Basel and Zurich filled with Tamils. There was genocide in Rwanda: they filled with Tutsis. It was a wonder to behold. Today the same streets sport posters of minarets drawn to look like missiles, to make absolute certain of the desired Islamophobic reaction.

What I particularly like about this ban is, of course, the effrontery of its double standards. Switzerland is a country of glorious countryside and charming cities. Both are dominated by the delicate churches with their graceful spires. You can have spires but you can’t have minarets? I’d have thought they would have blended right in. Of course, the other side said that minarets smacked of a striving for political dominance.

You think the people who built the spires were democrats?

The parties who tried to prevent the minaret ban sold the pass anyway. They said that the call of the muezzin would never be accepted but the minaret should be tolerated. So they weren’t really arguing for tolerance – just for a slightly less pronounced discrimination against Moslems. You don’t like the cry of the Muezzin? Nor do I. But it’s hardly the only disturbance of the peace we have to suffer in the name of religious fervour.

I used to live in Croydon, oh, donkey’s years ago. I don’t want to offend anyone living in today’s Croydon, which is a large town in Surrey or possibly a suburb in South East London, depending on your point of view. For all I know, it may today be a thriving, exciting centre of all that is excellent. When I knew it, it wasn’t so much a place as a misfortune. Drab, dull, soulless. But I lived well away from the centre, in South Croydon. That was leafy and pretty and though it wasn’t exactly animated, that very fact meant it was at least quiet.

Except on Sunday mornings. At the time I was in my early twenties and like most young men of that age, I regarded Sunday mornings as a time to sleep until recovered from the excesses of the week. It wasn’t so much a question of what time I got up on a Sunday morning, more of whether I got up in the morning at all. Normally. Except that in South Croydon I was a street or two away from the local church, and on a Sunday at some ghastly hour – 11:00, if you’d credit it – the bells started to ring.

The worst of it is that they rang not only loudly, but badly. People tell me there’s music in church bells. Yeah, right. Four notes played on a descending scale. And even though anyone who has read about my attempts to learn Salsa knows I have no sense of rhythm, I know how to space four notes evenly. But when it’s church bells, it’s inevitably ‘dong, dong,…,do-dong.’

The worst of it? I said this disturbance was limited to Sundays and I thought that was true until I got home early one Thursday evening which, I discovered, was bell ringers’ rehearsal night. Can you believe it? They had to practice to produce that incompetent cacophony.

You don’t like the muezzin’s cry? OK, why should you? But don’t come to me and tell me you like church bells. It’s just another way of making a lot of noise to tell people who don’t share your views that you’re keen on your beliefs. You think it’s musical? You’re just giving way to that oldest of prejudices, acceptance of what is familiar and rejection of what is strange.

Just like the Swiss and the minarets. Tall graceful church spires? Fine of course, because we’ve had them for centuries. Tall elegant minarets? We don’t know them, so we’ll ban them, and take xenophobic pleasure from the offence that causes.

It’s like a kid who refuses to try some new food, on the grounds that he doesn’t like what he hasn't tasted. But much more dangerous.

Oh, and I moved away from South Croydon within three months. Liked the place. Couldn’t stand the racket.


Anonymous said...

I dislike church bells as much as I do the muezzin's call! Back home in Mauritius, before dawn, it seems as if there is a competition between the mosques of Port Louis to find out which one can wake up the largest number of people ('unbelievers' included). I know of nothing which promotes islamophobia better. Like the "liberal" Swiss, I too have nothing against minarets.

Awoogamuffin said...

Instead of banning bells, or muezzin's and their associated towers, we should let them all come, but then have out secular towers.

We'd have to come up with a cool name for these towers, standing tall in the name of secularism, but instead of a call to prayer, they'll use science to compete with the other two - specifically by giving unbelievers a chance to sleep.

They could all be fitted with microphones, which pick up the sound of the bells or the call to prayer, then speakers attached will output a sound with the opposite wavelength - the two sounds meet each other and cancel each other out, allowing everyone to sleep well. Stealth helicopters use similar technology.

I guess the problem then would be that religious people wouldn't hear the call, though I doubt anybody actually uses the bells to remember. This could all be analogous to lively debate, as opposed to banning and dominating.