Islam and Switzerland – The return of the nativists

Linked on our blogs with Letter to the Editor: response to article of Muslim immigrants, with People’s fears or people’s will, and with Swissness in danger – the minarets and we.

Published on The Economist, Dec 3rd 2009.

A surprise vote to bar new minarets suggests that suspicion between faiths and cultures, even in calm democracies, runs deeper than liberal types admit.

In a Europe that is criticised, in various parts of the world, for sliding lazily towards a Muslim-dominated “Eurabia” or else for clinging stubbornly to the remnants of Christian theocracy, the referendum on November 29th was the most dramatic move any nation has made to limit the visibility of Islam.

And it happened in a land where Islam has never been very visible. The most striking feature of Geneva’s 30-year-old mosque is its modesty: its minaret (one of only four in the country) merely matches the height of the building, even though permission existed for a much taller one. And the Muslim call to prayer has not been heard in Switzerland, except (during the referendum campaign) from anti-Islamic activists trying to alarm the public. 

Muslims in Switzerland are numerous (about 400,000, mostly from the Balkans and Turkey) but not especially zealous. Yet among its many effects, the result will strain relations between the Swiss and the Turks … //

… Europeans, who are used to being told off by Americans for being too soft on Islam, have in recent days found themselves being scolded for the opposite reason; their continent is failing to live up to the ideals of pluralism and free speech that were a European gift to the world.

Freedom House, an American lobby group, called the Swiss vote a “dangerous backslide” for religious liberty in a country that prided itself on tolerance. Reza Aslan, a California-based writer on Islam, said the Swiss vote would be seen as “an appalling violation” of basic rights, even by Americans who did not much like Islam. In his view, the ballot laid bare an “institutional racism” in Europe which contrasted with the restrained reaction of Americans to the shoot-out at a Texan army base in which a Muslim officer killed 13 people. Although populist Islam-bashing obviously exists in the United States (on talk radio, for example) it will never—in Mr Aslan’s opinion—gain real political respectability.

Meanwhile, for all the unhappiness that the Swiss vote triggered in the Muslim world, there was no immediate sign of the street violence which broke out after Pope Benedict XVI quoted an anti-Muslim Byzantine ruler or when the Danish press published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. (The anti-Danish protests peaked several months after the drawings came out; this time lag suggested to some that they were the result of a calculated stirring, not a spontaneous outburst.)

If the reaction in Muslim-majority states has been muffled, that could be because certain of them share the Swiss voters’ belief that the world really does divide into Huntingtonian blocks, where one religion or another prevails, and the rest exist on sufferance. There is virtually no Muslim land where religious minorities and dissident Muslims enjoy unimpeded civil rights, like the right to build places of worship without big bureaucratic hurdles.

Western governments, including the Vatican, have refused to play a game of reciprocity, where the freedom of their own Muslim citizens is held hostage to the status of Christians and other minorities in the Islamic world. But as the Swiss vote suggests, European governments may find it hard to resist populist calls for a tit-for-tat approach—unless they take a leaf from America’s book and a draw up a simple, transparent set of legal rules for all faiths. If they do, it will be harder for Swiss zealots to argue that today’s architectural feature implies tomorrow’s stoning. (full long text).

Comments are closed.