Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Fabricating New Minarets of Identity

While the Swiss ban minarets, South Asians fabricate new ones

Yousuf Saeed and Christiane Brosius

Fig.01: "Tamam ahle watan ko baqrid ki mubarakbad. Zamzam minar (Greetings of Id-al Azha to all citizens of India. Zamzam minaret) - R.C.C. Prefabricated strong minarets. They save time and money, and are beautiful. Hyderganj Chauraha, Lucknow."

The above Hindi advertisement of prefabricated minarets (Fig.01) appeared on 30th November 2009, in the Urdu newspaper Rashtriya Sahara, published from NOIDA/Delhi, coincidentally on the day some people of Switzerland voted to ban minarets in their country. Such advertisements have also been seen as small stickers stuck on the walls of mosques in Delhi or Uttar Pradesh. Prefabricated minarets for mosques in South Asia is a new phenomenon: These were also seen in 2005 in a shop selling "mosque accessories" in Lahore, Pakistan. According to Ratish Nanda, a monument restoration expert working with the Agha Khan Trust for Culture in Delhi, prefab minarets have been a norm in Iran since long time. These have now been introduced in north India: they were noticed being sold at least in Ghaziabad and Lucknow since last one year or so.

The prefab minarets are intricately designed towers of various sizes (from 7 to 30 feet tall), molded with cement, steel, plaster of Paris and paint. While some samples are kept in the open shops of the supplier/manufacturer, one can order the minarets to be made according to one’s requirement. The new ones come in white or cream coloured finish, and could be painted or decorated further according to a mosque’s design. While one still needs to find out who designs them and where they are used, their smaller size, easy portability and quick availability says a lot about the popular aesthetics of small mosques in India. The prefab minarets are not necessarily meant for new mosques alone: sometimes they can add a new look to an old and dilapidated mosque. The latest and most-easily seen example is the Aulia mosque embedded within Delhi’s Connaught Place market that seems to have installed a small prefab minaret on one of its walls, probably to catch up with the major restoration work going on in the entire Connaught Place complex in preparation of the forthcoming Commonwealth Games.

While the original purpose of a minaret in a mosque was for a muezzin to climb to a higher level to call out for prayers to the people in the vicinity, they soon started being identified with a uniquely “Muslim” identity and are now considered an integral part of Islamic architecture all over the world, even though Islamic scriptures have no relevance for minarets or domes. The prefab minarets are unlikely to play any role beyond providing decoration and identity to a mosque due to their small size and delicate raw material (although they claim them to be strong). Moreover, while the construction of mosques in the past was a labour-intensive and often communal activity in which the local residents participated as if in an act of devotion, the prefab archetypes in religious shrines herald a new era where an easy mechanical production of a component or full building evokes awe and wonderment. This may not be very far from other examples of prefab religious buildings such as the Akshardham temple (in Delhi) or the proposed Ram temple at Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh), which is planned to be entirely composed of prefab material – signs of the New Age religious pride.

But while some religious South Asians learn to use new technologies to augment their faith and identity, some in the west go to the other extreme by denying the use of any symbols of religious identity, especially "external" ones, in their lands. While globalization and world trade may have brought in the concept of prefab architecture into India, the same also inevitably leads to a reverse flow, of Asian/Islamic cultures into the West. One needs to see how long it will take for us to accept and tolerate each other's cultures while we already accept their merchandise.

The images from Europe shown here have been created in the context of, and in response to, the referendum for a ban of minarets in Switzerland that started only in 2009, and reached its ‘hot phase’ also in relation to the wider discussions on Islam in Europe in autumn this year (see www.minarett.ch - only in German). The people’s initiative demanding a ban of minarets defines the construction of minarets as a claim for power of orthodox or/and Islamicist motivation, challenging a secular and individualist society and marginalising the host community of Swiss citizens as strangers with a “backward, fundamentalist, medieval way of life and culture”. Instead, they are defined as a sign of intolerance, and a territorial claim for power and even conquest. Minarets, so the argument, are not essential to the functioning of a mosque because they are, as the argument goes, not a religious element. At the same time, reference is made to the fact that the call of the muezzin to prayer is seen as both a nuisance and provocation. But the people’s initiative also points beyond religious practice and criticises ‘Islamic practices’ such as forced marriage and oppression of women by forcing them into wearing a veil. This is why the image of the chador-wearing woman is added to the minarets that seem to spear the flag of Switzerland like missiles (Fig. 02). The promoters of the ban of minarets refer to Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, who, as a pamphlet on the above-mentioned website goes, has associated minarets with bayonets in a speech in 1997.

Fig. 02: 'Stop - Yes to a ban of minarets' - a poster recently published in the context of the Swiss referendum (

Fig. 03: From the website www.minarette.ch, by the eastern Swiss minaret opponents (Ostschweizer Minarettgegner)

Interestingly, at present, there are only four minarets in Switzerland. The image thus seems to project a wave of minaret – and mosque – construction, an 'invasion' of foreign aggression, values and ways of life that are imposed on the otherwise tolerant Swiss people. This also becomes evident in the poster of a minaret and a church in alliance (Fig. 03), suggesting a 'competition' of Christianity and Islam taking place in a secular state with a predominantly Christian citizenry. However, the church has been, and still is, very critical of the move for a ban of minarets and has challenged it until the last day of the referendum. In return, the church has been aligned with other critics such as politicians and unions as ‘elitist’ and removed from the volonte generale, the people's will.

Figure 04 shows a 'traditional' Swiss citizen drawn in a cartoonish style, with a smile on his face as missiles are launched from the flag of Switzerland: the imae points to another referendum around the same time against the export of weapons of war from Switzerland. The referendum resulted in a rejection of the ban of export.
Fig. 04: http://al-zh.ch/category/schweiz/

Fig. 05: A poster released by supporters
of minaret construction (http://www.pi-news.net/2009/10/schweiz-gesinnungshueter-vereint-pro-minarette/)

In sum, this complex field of discourses that surface in those images alerts us to the contestation of integration (defined as assimilation), and a highly ambivalent relationship to Islam in a country that is otherwise known for its open attitude towards migrants and non-Christian religions. But it also makes us aware of the power of media to trigger certain emotions and circulate discourses of 'alienation' beyond national borders and, last but not least, the fact that by no means, ‘all’ Swiss people are Islamophobic (fig. 05).

Other images made in reaction to the ban on minarets:

The image on the right (fig. 06) has been found on the BNP-blog (British National Party) announcing that it can be ordered both as poster and T-shirt: "Public demand has forced Excalibur, the British National Party’s merchandising arm, to launch a new T-Shirt and poster design based upon the hugely successful Swiss People’s Party anti-minaret poster."
(http://bnp.org.uk/2009/10/excalibur-launches-anti-minaret-t-shirts-posters-to-follow/. accessed 12 Dec 2009).

Fig. 06

Fig. 07

The image on the left (fig. 07) has been taken from an article entitled "Mountains and Minarets" by Ian Buruma that appeared in the Korea Times on 6.12.2009 (http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/opinon/2009/12/137_56744.html)
Click to see the larger version
Fig. 08

(Fig. 08) "Am I a minaret, too?" says a banner on the clock tower of a church in Bern, Switzerland. A picture sent and made by Sebastian Herren, Zuerich.

(Click to see a larger image)

Click to see the larger version
(Fig. 09) "Dear Muslims, please don't leave us alone with these Christians!" says a notice (above) in a cafe in Zuerich. Source: Sebastian Herren

(Click to see a larger image)

Some links on the Swiss ban on minarets:

Swiss minaret ban reflects 'need for more dialogue': FM (The Jakarta Post)

UN slams 'discriminatory' Swiss minaret ban

Minaret Ban Shoves Swiss Hard to the Right
Surprise vote shows anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment on the rise

Switzerland votes on Muslim minaret ban

Anti-minaret posters in Zurich (since October 26, 2009)

Hypocrisy in Pakistan: on the Swiss minaret issue

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