How Do You Solve a Problem Like a Minaret?

In this country NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) disputes rage over offenses such as shrubs, too high fences, wind turbines and over-the-top square footage.

But in Europe, where everything is always more serious, it's Islam -- or the many symbols of that religion, like mosques and minarets, which has the locals stewing.

We all know by now that the famously neutral and tolerant Swiss (ahem) voted recently to ban construction of new minarets (there are a total of four in the country already), while the French (Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!) have previously banned the wearing of the head scarf in public schools. Next up for French banning: the burqua.

With Europe's Muslim population at around 15 million and growing, you could say they are afraid of..what, exactly?

Let's recall that the Swiss ban was proposed by a right-wing, anti-immigrant party whose campaign posters for the vote featured a Swiss flag covered with minarets depicted as missiles and a Muslim woman in a chador. And French President Sarkozy is accused of using the head scarf-burqua debate to rally rightist supporters.

Given the political mood and public opinion, a new question is now being asked: can design help defuse Europe's Muslim NIMBY paranoia?

Perhaps, believes design and architecture website, which is sponsoring a "call for ideas" with the proposition that, if you can't build a minaret that looks like a minaret, can you design one that is "an event rather than an object?" In other words, "a deployable minaret that can attain full presence, visible from a distance, during each of the five daily calls to prayer," according to the brief, titled "Switzerland, We Have a Problem."

Sounds to me like a typical Swiss solution: you get your religious freedom but don't despoil the pristine alpine meadow or view of the Protestant church steeple for other people.

Some jokey ideas are coming in -- like a minaret as a snow cannon or a portable version that can be strapped to a mullah's back. The logo for this contest is a a faux but innovative Swiss army knife with minarets arrayed, not blades and other accessories.

Which brings us back to France, where the Muslim population of Marseille will soon lay the cornerstone of a new $33 million Grande Mosque -- minaret and all (still legal there). Yet The New York Times tells us that this minaret won't be like others: it will be silent (no muezzin, or call to prayer, live or recorded) broadcast.

Mais non. A compromise was needed to avoid offending anyone, so a beam of light will flash five times a day. Not a green light (the color of Islam) because that is reserved as a signal for ships at sea. Not a red light, reserved for firefighters. They will probably go for the color purple, the Times reports.

Accommodation, assimilation, or cop out? The French are arguing. And so should we. Not about what color light is appropriate for a minaret that can't really be a minaret but whether we should try to design our way out of this problem or confront head on xenophobia, fear and intolerance.

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