'City of a thousand minarets' slams Swiss vote

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CAIRO: Muslims in Cairo – once dubbed the City of a Thousand Minarets – have slammed a referendum in Switzerland banning new minarets as intolerant, but few have called for a boycott of Swiss goods.

At the prestigious Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam s main seat of learning, authorities were dismayed after more than 57 percent of Swiss voters on Sunday approved the right-wing motion to ban minarets on mosques.

Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Aziz, secretary general of Al-Azhar s Fatwa Council which issues religious edicts, described the vote as an attack on religious freedom.

European countries are supposed to be democratic and free. If there is freedom, why ban the construction of minarets? Will they also ban church bells? Abdel Aziz told AFP in an interview.

Why is this ancient symbol of Islam, a simple monument from where the imam tries to call as many people as possible to pray, disturbing? he asked.

Cairo s landscape is dotted with the minarets of at least 4,700 government mosques in all their shapes and sizes.

The minarets are not themselves necessary for prayer because as far as the Prophet Mohamed was concerned, the whole world is a prayer area, said Abdel Aziz.

If non-Muslims are allowed to build church towers, and nuns are allowed to wear the veil, Muslims should be allowed to establish places of worship and Muslim women allowed to hide their hair, said Sheikh Mohamed Saleh Shedid, an imam at Al-Azhar, in reference to the debate in Europe on the freedom to wear the Islamic headscarf.

My message to the Swiss government is that if it s about banning minarets and not other places of worship, then it s unfair. My message to the (right-wing) Swiss People s Party is that you have the right to express your point of view, but let Muslims express theirs, Shedeed said.

But in contrast to the wave of protests across Cairo and the Muslim world sparked by the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed in a Danish newspaper in 2005, the Swiss vote did not provoke calls for a boycott.

Official reactions will also be subdued in a country where minority Coptic Christians wanting to build new churches have been met with strong resistance, and where a draft law on the issue in parliament has been blocked.

Egypt s grand mufti – the country s most senior Islamic scholar – denounced the referendum result as an insult to Islam, but nonetheless called for dialogue between the religions.

At the main tourist bazaar of Khan El-Khalili in Cairo, Mohamed Fawzi who sells miniature sphinx replicas and golden Cleopatras, says a boycott would not achieve anything.

We don t know where the products we buy come from. It s on the relationship level that one must act, dialogue to change people s mentality, said the 22-year-old.

Sheikh Abdel Aziz agrees but notes there is nothing we can do from here. Each Muslim in Switzerland must try to change the mentality.

Myriam Ali, 19, an architecture student is pro-boycott.

I won t go to Switzerland. I will not buy Swiss products. Those behind the ban must be punished and go to jail, she said.

Meanwhile, Cairo residents are more concerned with another minaret issue stirring in their own backyard.

Egyptian authorities have been calling for a unified call to prayer from the minarets in order to reduce the cacophony created by the thousands of untrained muezzins performing the azan through loudspeakers or microphones five times a day, often out of sync.

According to a plan by the ministry of endowments, which handles religious affairs, a muezzin would announce the azan from one of the larger mosques of the city and his voice will be broadcast to others equipped with specially designed receivers.

The initiative, which was never applied, is motivated by a desire to respect peace and quiet, the quality of life in Cairo as well as respecting a religious ritual which risks being tarnished, said Iman Farag, a researcher at the Centre d Etudes et de Documentation Economiques, Juridiques et Sociales (CEDEJ) in Cairo, a research center affiliated with the French foreign ministry.

But opponents accuse the state of intervening in the practice of a religious ritual while there are other important social issues like the pollution and poverty to deal with, Farag said.

The plan was also criticized by religious conservatives who accuse the ministry of going against the spirit of Islam by blocking someone from performing the azan, while the fate of thousands of muezzins, who might lose their jobs, is also at stake.

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