by Jeffry Halverson
This morning I was forwarded an Op-Ed from the Chronicle of Higher Education written by Carlin Romano, a journalist and scholar of media theory at the University of Pennsylvania. Entitled “Of Minarets and Massacres,” the Op-Ed came across as an opportunistic diatribe against what Romano sees as the egregious hypocrisy of Muslims (and ‘self-hating’ Europeans and liberals) who have condemned the recent Swiss democratic vote (57% in favor) to ban the construction of minarets on mosques in the country.
The ban will now be added to the Swiss Constitution. Only four mosques in Switzerland even have minarets, and two more were being planned prior to the ban. So the vote was not a reaction to some serious minaret problem impacting Swiss society (such as the cacophony of prayer calls one might hear in Cairo or Ankara). Rather, the vote was a manifestation of a deep-seeded irrational fear and it screams of xenophobic prejudice and paranoid fantasies that the Moslem [sic] hordes are on the march.
But Romano “does not weep,” as he put it, for the Swiss ban because he is “too busy weeping for the Armenians, the first people in their corner of the world to officially adopt Christianity, almost eliminated from history due to regular massacres by the Muslim Turks.” That’s right. Romano makes the astounding rhetorical leap from the November 2009 Swiss vote banning minarets all the way to the horrors of the Armenian genocide by Ottoman Turks one hundred years ago. There is no explicit connection between the two, save for the fact that the majority of Switzerland’s 400,000 Muslims are of Turkish and Albanian origin.
To be clear, I am not questioning the tragedy of the Armenian genocide. But how does it justify Switzerland’s institutionalized discrimination against its Muslim citizens (and migrant workers) in the 21st century? Doesn’t Western Europe pride itself on the righteous ideals of the Enlightenment, human rights, and international law?
Romano’s answer: “So long as Muslims anywhere keep their place in the House of Islam everywhere, they bear some responsibility for the actions of their fellow believers.” He further states:
If you steep yourself in the atrocities of the Armenian genocide, not to mention the many intolerances exhibited by majority-Muslim societies toward Christians, Jews, women, gays, and other non-Muslims, one’s conclusion is not an absolutist moral judgment, but a decision on who owes a greater apology to whom, a decision on how to allocate one’s moral energy. The day that Turkey apologizes and pays reparations for theArmenian genocide, that Saudi Arabia permits the building of churches and synagogues, that the Arab world thinks the homeland principles it applies to the Arabs of Palestine also apply to the Armenians of Turkey—on that day, I will find time to commiserate with the generally kind and hard-working Muslims of Switzerland.
I found his insistence on referring to Istanbul as “Constantinople” particularly amusing. His dismissal of Serbian “persecution” of Bosnian Muslims was also charming.
If Romano were sincerely interested in tackling this subject, and not exploiting it as an opportunity to air his general dislike of Islam and recount the atrocities of the Young Turks and Turkish nationalists against the Armenians (not to mention the aggressive campaign to ‘Turkicize’ the Kurds – but they’re Muslims so Romano ignores them), a far more fruitful and appropriate discussion would have focused on a subject such as Egypt’s institutionalized restrictions against Church construction (as well as repairs and routine maintenance) for its Coptic Christian citizens (approx. 15% of the population).
Those restrictions are, however, rooted in medieval law and enacted in a country where the Constitution states that Islamic law (shariah) is the principle source of legislation. Deplorable yes, but has Switzerland reverted to medieval law like Egypt? Or is Romano suggesting that we in the West should regress to the Dark Ages out of spite?
Romano does admittedly preface his remarks by noting the “widened spectrum of ‘context’” for intellectual debates in the era of online commentaries. But rather than rectifying what he calls the “anarchy of cybercommentary,” he fully indulges in it and perpetuates the same fruitless level of discourse by engaging in something akin to a childish airing of historical grievances. In the process, he succeeds in painting himself as an “Islamophobe” and discredits his own academic credentials (which are completely unrelated to Islamic studies, history, or related disciplines to start).
He deliberately constructs a historical narrative of the Armenian genocide as a binary Muslim slaughter of Christians, and pastes copious dates and data into his Op-Ed to dress his polemic with a facade of academic authority. But his framework is erroneous. He (intentionally?) overlooks the fact that while a Muslim empire ruled the region for centuries, the genocide of ethnic Armenians coincided with a wave of ethnic nationalism sweeping Europe and the broader region at the turn of the century. The Turks were busy creating a Turkish homeland for themselves (not an “Islamic state”) as the old Ottoman Empire crumbled before them.
The Arabs were busy too, fighting and seceding from the Ottoman Turks (siding with the Christian British) to create their own ethno-nationalist nation-states (or as Romano would put it “Muslim fighting Muslim”). The Orthodox Christian Czars of the Russian Empire, long a bitter foe of the Ottoman Turks, claimed authority over the Orthodox Christian minorities (or millets) in the Ottoman Empire following the decline of its military power and submission to several humiliating treaties. The Young Turks, who were Turkish nationalists (not Islamic activists), allied the Ottoman Empire with the (Christian) Germans, but the Armenians were the natural allies of the Russians. Some Armenian units actively fought for the Russians.
Religion, in this complex picture, was just one source of division and conflicting interests, not the motivating force for a horrific genocide. Thus, as Romano writes: “That year, 1915, saw the awful crescendo of the genocide as the CUP government forcibly deported Armenians eastward [to Syria, Iraq, and Russian territory], tortured, massacred, and starved them on death marches, confiscated their property, killed almost all of the arrested 250 leaders, and resettled Muslim [i.e. Turkish!] refugees on Armenian land.”
Also, we might note that the current Islamist-oriented government in Turkey recently established diplomatic relations with Armenia and President Abdullah Gul is the first Turkish leader to visit Armenia.
But, to get back to the point, as Romano suggests, “Let’s talk again about voting against two new minarets in Switzerland.” I paraphrase Romano’s argument as follows:
If Muslims do bad things to religious minorities, women, gays, and others in their countries, we in the Western countries, like Switzerland, should betray our own principles of justice and equality and hypocritically lower ourselves to the same level of injustice and discrimination. Then after this game of tit-for-tat, and only then, will we give equal rights to the Moslems [sic] that reside in our borders as tolerated aliens.
How was this nonsense printed in an “academic” publication like the Chronicle? This is the last sort of narrative discourse we ought to be perpetuating. It does not serve Western or global interests in the least. In fact, Islamist extremists would undoubtedly look upon these developments with delight. The “wicked Crusader West” is oppressing more Muslims in their own borders – perfect! What a wonderful recruiting opportunity for embedded terrorist cells.
Switzerland, and the rest of Europe, should remain true to their ideals and universally apply them to all those who legally reside within their borders. Hypocrisy is not an image we want to (further) project to the Muslim world, even if many in the Muslim world are guilty of the same sin themselves.