After the "why didn't you send me the money?" tape stopped playing in my head (after all, he reads and speaks French, and he could have figured out the PayPal page you get when you press that button over there; I can't figure out how to get it to display English, unfortunately), another tape started, of the Specials singing "If you have a racist friend/Now is the time for that friendship to end." I hate that song. Not only is it one of the band's least efforts, with a crappy tune, the lyrics shocked me when it came out and, after I started hearing it again, they still had that power. Here's the deal, guys: if the person's really your friend and you don't know he's a racist, how did that happen? Or if the person suddenly revealed this unfortunate tendency, isn't it maybe better to sit down and talk with them?
For those of you who may not have caught this piece of stupidity, Switzerland just had a referendum banning the construction of any further minarets on mosques in the country. Of which there are currently four (4). Minarets, that is, not mosques. Out of consideration for the neighbors, none (0) of them broadcast the call to prayer. I have no idea what Europe's Muslims think of this, but a number of human rights organizations signalled alarm, and there's talk that this may go to the European courts.
Not that this is any great surprise, either. Those of us who can remember back to 2007 will recall this charming election poster:
Sad to say, this party did very well in the elections, controls Parliament, and was behind this anti-minaret action, too.
Which is why I find myself in an odd position of defending Europe's Muslims. I'm not a Muslim, and I'm not particularly drawn to Muslim culture. Some Muslim extremists indirectly lost me €75,000 on September 11, 2001, and I'll never see that money again. I've discovered that I don't much like the food of at least the Arabic and Turkish Muslim peoples (I'm holding off on the North Africans until I have a better sampling), and the art and music does very little for me. I genuinely dislike the various costumes women in many Muslim cultures are obligated to wear, and the way the Koran is interpreted to assure extreme patriarchal domination by many Muslims is another reason I wouldn't want to live in a Muslim country.
But I could say the same about ultra-conservative Christians and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are in the process of trying to destroy the United States and Israel, respectively. The so-called Hindu fundamentalists (a neat trick, because there's no central scripture to Hinduism) are India's biggest problem, and I don't like what I've heard about some of the Buddhist monks in Thailand, either. Fortunately, I'm at no risk whatever of joining up with any of these folks.
But when it comes to Muslims, well, where I live, they're everywhere you look. Montpellier has the largest population of Algerians in France. There are loads of Moroccans around here, as well as Tunisians. I'd guess that a healthy percentage of the black folks I see walking our streets are from former French colonies like Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, which are overwhelmingly Muslim. And yeah, some of them wear funny clothes. There are men who wear kaftans and odd hats, and many more women who wear headscarves, although anything more than that is rare. There's an "Arab quarter" here, Figuerolles, although you'll be hard-pressed to find a Saudi there; it's overwhelmingly Maghrebi, northern African.
My next door neighbor is a young student named Yazid. Except for his name and his skin-color, he's pretty much what you'd expect a French university student to be. Downstairs is Les Délices du Liban, whose owner has become a friend thanks to his knowledge of how things work and the fact that when the German moving men deserted my stuff in the street the day I moved here, his friend Ali showed up and moved me in. Oh, and his cooking is great, but I already knew I liked Lebanese food thanks to my friend Jim in Austin, whose ancestors were Christians and whose mother was a powerhouse in the kitchen.
Everywhere you go here (well, except for the bars) you'll see Muslims. They're not buttonholing you to convert or to give to their charities; they're not, as far as I can tell, fomenting jihad (although one of the 9/11 crew was recruited out of the Figuerolles district here); they're not spitting on women in miniskirts (although they do ogle them, and some of the young women also dress in ways which stretch the modesty rules nicely); they're holding hands with their boyfriends and girlfriends in public, running businesses, working in the bank and the post office and the police department. They riot just as predictably when Algeria wins a soccer game (they apparently have been having quite the year) as a more mixed crowd did earlier in the year when Montpellier's rugby team ascended to the first division. And, according to a survey the Open Society Institute published on Tuesday, they prefer to live with the rest of us instead of in ethnically-segregated neighborhoods.
And as far as minarets go, for eleven years I lived two doors away from a church in Berlin with huge bells in it that sounded like trash cans -- very loud trash cans -- being beaten when they rang. Now, this church had, I estimate, about 20 parishoners on any given Sunday, with an increase around Christmas and a mob scene on Children's Day in November. There was a point at which the bells tolled the hour from 7am until 7pm, but a petition from the neighbors finally shut that down. There was nothing to do about Sunday mornings, though. So begrudging a Swiss mosque a minaret that doesn't make a sound would be like my begrudging that church its steeple and belfry if they'd shut the bells up.
My correspondent's Swiss city can't say this, but the city I live in became prominent because a millenium ago it was a spice port (yes, the Mediterranean came up all this way), where Arabs brought spices in from the eastern Mediterranean, Jews financed the trade, and the Christian French did the distribution north to the rest of the country. Eventually the three realized that some of the stuff that was coming in from the exotic lands they traded with really did have the medicinal properties alleged for it, and that a systematic study (a specialty of the Arabs and the Jews) would be a good thing. Thus, Europe's first medical school was born, and the foundation for today's sprawling university was laid. Later, of course, the French invented antisemitism and the Muslims were kicked out of Spain and the Crusades started, but that's another story.
The bottom line is, I can live with Muslims if they can live with me. They're far less annoying than, say, Les Lunkheads downstairs, they run vegetable stands which are open on Sunday, which is a good thing, and all in all, they seem like normal people. My correspondent said that one of the things he liked most about Switzerland was that the people there had a sense of order. To that I would reply that except for some of the more macho teenage boys, that seems to be true of the folks here, and that one of the things that drove me out of Germany was the fact that orderliness was esteemed as the highest achievement of humankind, an idea which I firmly reject.
So the Specials be damned: I don't think I have a racist friend, just someone who should get out of the house a bit more and realize that he's in no danger from a minaret. Not that he's likely to see one any time soon.