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Does the Minaret Make the Mosque?

December 9, 2009

Grand National Assembly Mosque Ankara, Turkey (no minaret)

Funnily enough, the earliest mosques didn’t even have minarets, and acquired them after influences of buildings of other faiths, namely churches. Consequently, the more conservative Islamic movements see the tower as ostentatious and impure, preferring to stick to the only real rule there is to a mosque, according to the Qur’an; that it point towards Mecca. That’s for irony’s sake. But historical facts aside, let’s just accept that minarets have become a powerful symbol of Islamic culture.

Even so, is Switzerland’s recent minaret ban really about the minaret? Of course not. It’s quite clear that in a country with a total of four minarets and most of whose 5% Muslim population does not even adhere to conservative Muslim codes, the move boils down to fear. As LA Times blogger Christopher Hawthorne calls it, “a misdirected burst of electoral pique in a country that speaks proudly of its reputation for tolerance and openness.”

Walter Wobmann, president of the committee "Yes for a Ban on Minarets," gave a thumbs-up in Egerkingen, Switzerland, on Sunday, next to the now infamous anti-minaret poster.

For Muslims, surely it’s not so much about the minaret as it is about the message. The NY Times quoted Farhad Afshar , who runs the Coordination of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland: “Most painful for us is not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote. Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community.”

We all know where rejection and intolerance have gotten us until now. Hawthorne states in his article, “By banning minarets outright instead of moving to restrict their size or style — or, better yet, to open up a broad debate about how a mosque in a Western city ought to look in an age of Islamic fundamentalism and Muslim immigration — the Swiss have slipped behind their own veil of mute distrust.”

And while the Swiss vote against the minaret out of fear, and others even plead against it in favor of unity, still others try to find a practical solution to this deeply-rooted, potentially dangerous conflict.

After all, architecture just got caught in the crossfire here, as did fashion in the past. But why not use it? Archinect’s competition, Switzerland, We Have a Problem aims to “address this impasse between the rightful expression of the Muslim religion and the value of Switzerland’s overwhelmingly scenic environment” by calling on the architecture community to “design a minaret as event rather than object…a deployable minaret that can attain full presence, visible from a distance, during each of the five daily calls to prayer.”

Here are some of the proposals submitted so far:

The Baxendale Motorized Telescoping Minaret by Baxendale Architectural Solutions

Inflatable Minaret by denemebirikiuc on flickr

The Swiss Mirror Minaret by CSS Arquitectura/Héctor Coss

As much as we believe that design has the power to change the world, we’re not sure that everything depends on it. In the end, its not really about the minaret, is it, deployable or not. But perhaps the role of design in situations like these is more one of activism, awareness and yes, offering alternatives. If design today can find ways of exposing our crazy contradictions, of subverting intolerance rather than feeding it, of embracing rather than merely tolerating…then ultimately, it will be part of the solution.

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