In taking their army knife to the civil rights of Swiss Muslims by banning minarets on mosques, the Swiss have fallen prey to the politics of hate and fear bubbling all too close to Europe's surface
The overwhelming vote by the Swiss to ban the building of minarets on their soil has rightly sent a chill through the legal, diplomatic and religious bones of governments, groups and individuals around the world.
First of all, it was one of the ugliest campaigns on record, clearly designed to ignite fear and hatred conjuring up an Islamophobia that is by no means peculiar to the Swiss, but, courtesy of their 57 percent “yes” vote, has been pushed to new limits by them.
Throughout Switzerland hung posters depicting black minarets that resembled missiles (rather than the beautiful and often exotic architectural constructs that they are), piercing through the Swiss flag, and in the foreground was a figure of a woman wearing a black niqab. The message was this is the only ‘face’ of Muslim women. The intent undeniably to evoke a sinister and menacing image of an imminent threat to the Swiss way of life.
The facts were never going to get in the way of this fearmongering, which raised the ridiculous spectre of a creeping Islamisation of Switzerland. For the record there are currently four, yes four, minarets in the entire country. Planning applications had been filed for the building of another two.
In a country known for its trains that run on time to the nano-second, its precision watches, and regulations governing the holes in its cheeses, nothing is left to chance and nothing is out of place.
As part of that man-made drive for perfection of course are countless bell towers on churches and cathedrals that crowd not only the Swiss cities, but its breathtakingly beautiful countryside. Bell towers it seems are okay and a proud statement about an enlightened division of church and state.
The government does not tell its citizens how to worship, nor in what form – unless you are Muslim of course. Before yelling that this was a citizen’s referendum and not the purvey of the government, it is highly relevant to ask what on earth the Swiss government was doing during the blatantly racist build up to the vote. Too little it would seem.
It is all well and fine for the government to express dismay at the outcome but horses and stable doors and bolting and all that sounds pathetically weak. In turn, belated bleating only serves to make the far right movement behind the whole disaster so much the stronger.
A Swiss lawyer I was discussing this with over the weekend described it as a national embarrassment and assured that moves are already underway to challenge the result from within the Swiss legal fraternity. Action will soon be before the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, and he said it is highly likely to be coupled with a case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It is to be hoped that he is right.
He was also keen to make it clear that the “offensive posters” were not allowed in many parts of the country and were most prevalent in the smaller towns, implying a lack of sophistication amongst those outside the impeccable Swiss cities that throng with law abiding citizens who pride themselves on their tolerant and inclusive attitudes to human rights and freedoms.
All of which sounds a little tough when considering a country that didn’t even allow women to vote until the mid 1970s, but that’s another story.
This story concentrates on how the manipulation of a female figure was able to be turned into such a force for fear that The Times of London reported before the votethat it was women who were leading the charge to ban the minarets. A Julie Werner who has clearly been paying far too much attention to the Palin school of political and constitutional psychobabble was quoted as claiming “if we give them a minaret they’ll have us all wearing burqas…before you know it we’ll have Sharia law and women being stoned to death in out streets. We won’t be Swiss anymore”. Don’t tempt me Julie.
For Julie and her fellow ‘yessers’ perhaps it is time to think about what it actually means to be Swiss. At the moment is involves being an easy pushover for skilled right wing populist party campaigners who have taken the country’s iconic army knife and shredded its image of a tolerant and progressive society concerned with protecting civil liberties and its international standing.
Unfortunately the minaret Genie – niqab included – can not be stuffed back in the bottle, and instead of Switzerland continuing on in harmony with its Muslim minority of 400,000, those citizens have been simultaneously stripped of a democratic right and defamed by a poster campaign that has incited hatred. They may well feel a little pissed off.
Worse still it has had an immediate domino effect amongst other European professional haters such as the Dutch Geert Wilders, who thinks banning minarets is a great idea and one he will try to see enforced in the Netherlands. Austria’s radical right Freedom Party and France’s Le Pen led National Front have joined in the celebrations.
Such parties exist to deliberately flame the fires of xenophobia and create tensions that impact seriously on minorities of colour, race and religion.
Sure there is extremism within Islam, but there is extremism in every religion. Just look around the world to see what is done in the name of God.
If anything good can come of this debacle it is that Switzerland has been yodeled out of any complacency and it will restore its values by throwing out what is truly an aberration of democracy.
The most stupid aspect of it all is that most of Switzerland’s Muslims go about their daily prayer rituals in ordinary homes and buildings rather than in classified mosques; the four existing minarets could hardly be considered a Trojan Horse hell bent on undermining the social fabric of Europe.
What has resulted is just one more case of sowing the seeds of resentment from a people too often treated with hostility and ghettoised for their beliefs.