Switzerland uses a referendum to ban construction of minarets

Switzerland, which considers itself the most tolerant and democratic country in the world, held a referendum on November 29 and by its result banned the construction of minarets –” clearly demonstrating that it is far from being tolerant and democratic when it comes to dealing with Islam and Muslims. By choosing a referendum, rather than a less conspicuous and dramatic method, to issue the ban, it has shown that it is not even willing to be discreet once it resolves to indict Islam and its 400,000 Muslim population, who are widely known to shun Islamic activism. It is true that the Swiss government initially opposed the scheme, but later adopted it as a measure claiming it was not directed against Islam or Muslims.

The move by far-right politicians and activists to hold the referendum exploited the unique Swiss procedure, which makes necessary a single-issue referendum if 100,000 signatures are collected by a petition in an 18-month period. The governments of European countries, such as France and Germany, that do not have such a narrow system for referendums and did not want to be linked to the Swiss far-right groups leading the anti-Islam exercise, immediately criticized it. In any case, they believed that the Swiss people would reject it rather than vote for it and would not be offended by the criticism. The Swiss government, which should have known better, also at first criticized the scheme for similar reasons, even branding it as discriminatory and probably illegal if implemented.

However, when the issue was put to the vote on November 29, the Swiss people voted for the ban on construction of new minarets on mosques by a comfortable margin (57 percent, with majorities in 22 of the 26 cantons). Yet there was no need for such a large-scale nationalistic war on Switzerland’s Muslim community, which was (and continues to be) widely accepted both locally and throughout Europe. There are only four minarets in the entire country, and they are hardly taller than the mosques to which they are attached. Even more discreetly, mosques do not call to prayer openly and happen to be among the quietest buildings in the country. Certainly they are quieter and more discreet about their activities than churches in Switzerland, and Swiss Muslims do not publicize their faith. All this was admitted and acknowledged in comments about the referendum in the European media.

The Economist of London, for instance, on December 5 des-cribed the referendum as the “most dramatic move any nation has made to limit the visibility of Islam”, adding that it had happened in “a land where Islam has never been very visible”. To indicate how invisible Islam is in Switzerland, the Economist described Geneva’s 30-year-old mosque as “modest” and its minarets as “matching the height of the building even though permission existed for a much taller one”. Interestingly, it also dealt with the Muslim call to prayers, saying that it “has not been heard in Switzerland except (during the referendum campaign) from anti-Islamic activists trying to alarm the public.”

Certainly, those campaigning for the ban on minarets made every effort to depict Islam and Muslims in Switzerland as a threat to peace, Christianity and democracy in Europe by the use of violence and terrorism. This led many people, governments and organizations worldwide to conclude that the Swiss people voted for the ban because of the anti-Islamic campaign, and that Muslims in Europe would be exposed to greater violence and discrimination as a result. In fact, newspaper opinion polls in Germany, Spain and France since the referendum have shown large majorities backing similar bans in their own countries. Not surprisingly, Muslim countries and international organizations openly condemned the ban, though not in a persistent and systematic fashion.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said soon after the voting that the ban was the result of scaremongering. “I hesitate to criticize a democratic vote, but I have no hesitation in condemning the anti-foreign scare-mongering that has characterized political campaigns in a number of countries, including Switzerland, which helps produce results like this,” she said. Rather disappointingly, however, she failed to condemn those governments –” notably Switzerland, Italy and France –” which initially pretended to oppose the call for a referendum but adopted and defended its result once it had been held. Italy did not even pretend to oppose the decision to hold the referendum because its officials, like those of France, had been conducting racist and anti-Islamic campaigns of their own long before.

Italy is widely known to be anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim, and there has been frequent opposition to the construction of mosques in its cities, such as Genoa, whose residents held a protest against a mosque project there only one day after the mosque referendum. In fact, Italian government officials and politicians openly and strongly oppose the construction of mosques. Not surprisingly, many of them –” such as Roben Maroni, the interior minister –” who belong to the anti-immigrant Northern League, warmly welcomed the result of the Swiss referendum and called for a similar procedure in their country.

But France, which has the largest population of Muslims (6 million) in Europe, is far more anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant than most other European countries. It is true that far-right politicians in the Netherlands, Austria and Italy hailed the Swiss procedure as “exemplary” when Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, promptly denounced it –” saying that he was shocked by the Swiss vote and hoped that the decision would be reversed. But he was soon strongly contradicted by Nicolas Sarkozy, his own head of government, who expressed strong support for the Swiss vote and criticized those who denounced it, including Muslims in France and elsewhere. “How can you not be amazed at the reaction that this decision has produced in certain media and political circles in our own country,” he said. “Instead of condemning the Swiss out of hand, we should try to understand what they meant to express and what so many people in Europe feel, including people in France.”

Writing in Le Monde, a prominent French daily, on December 8, Sarkozy told “Christians, Jews, Muslims, all believers, regardless of their faith” how to behave, saying that they should avoid “ostentation and provocation”. But he reserved a special warning for Muslims, especially French Muslims. Muslims will need to find a way to integrate in Europe “without conflicting with our social and civic pact”, while “moderate Islam would fail if Muslims tried to challenge the country’s republican value-system or Christian heritage,” he said.

Sarkozy’s strong warning to and attack on Muslims and Islam arose mainly from a national identity debate that he is involved in organizing and running. In fact, one of the reasons why he strongly supported the referendum in Switzerland, although France does not have a similar system, was that he knew that his anti-Islam and anti-immigrant national-identity campaign is at least as discriminatory as the result of the referendum. Moreover, he has used all the political, administrative and information-disseminating systems of the state to conduct and manipulate the debate.

During November the debate raged in town-hall meetings, and on December 8 it moved to parliament. During its debate, parliament has been considering how far the burqa, or full Islamic veil, is contradictory to French national identity, and will issue a report in January on whether it should be banned. Since president Sarkozy has already publicly denounced the burqa as “having no place in France”, there is hardly any doubt that the parliamentary report will recommend a ban. That he himself has no doubt is shown by the fact that he has ordered a major conference on national identity to be held in Paris in February, by which time the parliamentary will would have been published.

Clearly, Sarkozy’s claim that the people of Europe are not racist or anti-Islamic is totally unfounded. As he put it, “The peoples of Europe are welcoming and tolerant. But they don’t want their way of life, their mode of thinking and their social relations to be disturbed.” In Switzerland, for example, the majority of Muslims are from the Balkans and Turkey and the anti-minaret vote was seen as both racist and anti-Islamic. As Resa Aslan, a California-based writer on Islam quoted in the Economist on December 5 put it, the vote exposed “an institutional racism” at a level even higher than that in America. Atila Toptus, a Turkish-born Swiss legislator quoted in the same magazine, also said that the anti-minaret campaign stirred up feelings that were as much anti-Turkish as they were anti-Muslim.

Clearly, the Swiss and French anti-Muslim campaigns and decisions are against both international and European human-rights conventions, and could have been challenged at least in the European Court of Human Rights or Switzerland’s supreme court. That Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, and the Muslim countries that criticized the result of the referendum have failed to arrange a legal challenge to either outrage lets down Muslims (both in Europe and elsewhere) who have shown great courage and refuse to be intimidated. They certainly deserve greater support from the UN, whose duty it is to end the outrage, and from Muslim governments.