x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Bern is reluctant to gaze skyward

The European newcomer to Islam cannot be given the impression that to be a good Muslim means to become an Arab.

Once again the xenophobic European ultra-right refuses to foot the bill for the legacy of imperial hubris. The decision to colonise another people, dismantle all of their organic social infrastructures, graft alien institutions on to their cultures, and otherwise cart off their natural resources will inevitably have repercussions. Instability breeds confusion and handicaps economic development.

A natural result is the economically motivated migration of the client-citizen to the centres of the destabilising power. As the saying goes: "You broke it, you pay for it." Slender, reaching skyward, calling the spirit five times daily to ascend towards broader horizons in form and function, the minaret is an architectural icon of Muslim culture. Travellers from Europe have wondered in awe at the grace and elegance of minarets in Istanbul and Cairo.

Far from a symbol of extremism, the minaret asks us all to look beyond the mundane or the petty differences and material preoccupations that bring tension and discord to our lives. Minarets are a symbol of calling humanity to a renewal of spirit and a broadening of horizons as wide as the sky toward which they point. Switzerland has always had difficulty with tolerance. This time it's getting silly, as its right wingers seek to rewrite cultural history and paint their own bigoted fears on to their latest muse, the minaret. But to what degree have we as Muslims provided them with easel and canvas, brush and palette?

The conduct of visible segments of immigrant populations in Europe is at times appalling. Refined conduct is itself a primary concern of the very faith culture toward which the minaret points, yet it is often lost on these economic migrants. This gap could be bridged by appointing Muslim imams and providing space for scholars who are themselves native to Swiss, French, German, and Scandinavian cultures.

Yet there remains a growing number of young scholars of European descent who have been qualified with interpretive and otherwise academic authority in Islamic jurisprudence and theology. Marginalised by immigrant mosque boards, they sit by as onlookers while this tragedy of social, cultural and intellectual ineptitude continues to unfold. The translation of timeless Islamic principles into indigenous cultural patois must be accompanied by a decoupling of eastern cultural forms from doctrinal essences.

The European newcomer to Islam cannot be given the impression that embracing his or her new faith implies the erasure of the validity of their own culture and that to be a good Muslim means to become an Arab. This is not the understanding that was brought to Timbuktu, Andalusia, Azerbaijan, Istanbul, China and the Malay Archipelago. Finally, we have a chronic neglect of the aesthetic imperative in Islam. Just as we find western-style malls with the accompanied brashness of their advertising and fast food chains in sacred spaces tasteless, so to is the grafting of foreign aesthetics - or more often, some pastiche of them - on to the landscape of western societies. When we go to Malaysia we expect Asian architecture; when in Cairo, Arabesque. But when in Geneva, Marseille or Boston, we don't. The shock of stumbling into a transplanted pastiche of eastern designs in western environs is akin to an artistic traffic accident.

I once knew a Swiss man of Turkish descent. Born and raised in Switzerland, he was a devout Muslim, and was even named after one of the Ottoman sultans. But he was a master of the artistic embellishments that adorn the eaves of traditional Swiss homes. When the Swiss would build a new home in the traditional style, he was a favourite to be commissioned to apply the decorative styles. The possibilities for cross-cultural sharing are as broad as the sky toward which the minaret points.

Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi