Chalets and Minarets
Swiss voters will go to the polls on the last Sunday of November to vote on whether the government should ban the construction of minarets, slender towers that stand next to mosques. Muslims around the world use the balconies of minarets for the daily call to worship. Switzer-land already bans loudspeakers on the balconies because of noise pollution.
Behind the referendum is the right-wing Swiss People’s Party. It has used ugly tactics to underscore its anti-Muslim views, claiming that minarets are symbols of Islamic intolerance. Posters have appeared with a woman in a burqa in front of missile-shaped minarets. Though some cities, like Basel, have outlawed the posters, others, like Zurich, have allowed them in the name of free speech.
Only 5 percent of Swiss residents are Muslim, and of the roughly 150 mosques in the country, just four have minarets. Some businesses are concerned, though, that a ban could harm sales in Muslim parts of the world. The watch company Swatch Group Ltd., for instance, worries about a possible backlash. Others see far deeper implications in a ban. The Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, who was born and raised in Switzerland, blames racism for the initiative. He told an interviewer that voters “should not vote with their fears, but with their principles...which comprise freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.” Open-minded observers might agree that anti-Muslim bigotry, whether in Switzerland or elsewhere, is contrary to the functioning of any free society.
Downsizing the Man-Eaters
At the end of the 19th century, two animals halted the progress of empire. Near Tsavo, in Kenya, two lions closed down the building of the British East African Railway, intended to open the interior of the continent to trade. For months the lions, nicknamed Ghost and Darkness, later the subject of a 1997 film, snatched workers from the camps, mainly at night but often during the day, reputedly killing 135 workers. Nothing could stop them—not even “lion-proof” fences made of thorn trees. Finally, an intrepid hunter, Lt. Col. J. H. Patterson, brought the two man-eaters down, wrote a book called (what else?) The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and donated their skins to the Field Museum in Chicago, where they, stuffed, have stood sentry ever since.
That story has just changed. According to Science Daily, scientists analyzing the bone and hair of the lions with “stable isotope analysis” have determined they killed “only” 35 humans. “The rather extravagant claims Colonel Patterson made can now be pretty much dismissed,” said Nathaniel J. Dominy, a professor of anthropology. Similar debunking, or downsizing of stories, has become common. The Vikings, we are told, never wore those operatic hats with horns. (Horns would have provided enemies with a way to grab hold of their opponents.)
Even religious stories are subject to downsizing. The parting of the Red Sea was recently ascribed not to God’s awesome power but a natural occurrence of wind. But, as with the story of the Exodus, even scientifically downsized stories convey lasting truths. God led his people out of Egypt. And you still wouldn’t want to meet up with Ghost and Darkness on a moonless night in East Africa.
In the U.S. Congress, legislation aimed at responding to climate change has been shelved until 2010. India, for its part, has already ruled out carbon emission limits, arguing not unreasonably that since the planet’s advanced econ-omies got spaceship Earth into this choking hazard, it is their responsibility to get it out.
This is the political climate of deadlock and denial that challenges the organizers of this December’s U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copen-hagen, Denmark. While some climatologists have been spinning doomsday scenarios like something out of the Book of Revelation, even moderates among them worry that world powers must soberly confront their carbon problem before it is too late. President Obama says he is ready to visit Copenhagen personally, if that might charm conference members into meaningful commitments.
Unfortunately it is not just a recalcitrant carbon-spewers-of-the-future club—Brazil, China and India—that he has to deal with, but a U.S. Congress that still carries its fair load of climate change deniers. Obama’s dialogue in mid-November with Chinese leaders should set the tone for Copenhagen. If he is able to work out a verifiable, practical carbon reduction strategy that the world’s economic behemoths can live with, that should provide a significant running start to Copenhagen. Closer to home President Obama may have to bypass the “Don’t worry, be happy” gang in Washington and set the Environmental Protection Agency to doing what Congress will not. The E.P.A. can reset industry standards to reduce the nation’s gigantic carbon footprint. We wish him luck. All that hot air Congress is generating on climate change is becoming stifling.