Swiss, Cross
The point of that pointless minaret referendum.


Andrew Stuttaford

So far, so predictable. The now infamous referendum amending Switzerland’s constitution in a way that prohibits the construction of any more minarets in the land of Heidi (there are already, um, four) has been damned by the usual suspects, including a gaggle of Christian clergymen, a babble of media, crazy Colonel Qaddafi, Turkey’s thuggish Islamist prime minister (the one who once referred to minarets as “our bayonets”), Iran’s thuggish Islamist foreign minister, Egypt’s Grand Mufti (try building a new church in Egypt), a collection of Saudi “scholars” (don’t even think of building a church in Saudi Arabia), and, of course, Jon Stewart. Yes, yes, I know what you are thinking, but condemnation by these clowns is not by itself a reason to decide that the vote went the right way — or that holding the referendum was a particularly good idea in the first place. It’s a start, however.

It is important to realize what the referendum was — and what it was not. What it was not was an assault on the ability of Switzerland’s 400,000 Muslims (roughly 5 percent of the population) to practice their religion. Their ability to worship freely is untouched, and they can build all the mosques they want — so long as they are not adorned with minarets.

But it is not unusual to find mosques without minarets, especially outside historically Muslim territories. Thus Switzerland has 150 to 200 mosques or public prayer rooms, but only those four lonely minarets, none of which — thanks to noise-pollution regulations — are actually used for the adhan, the call to prayer. Those numbers suggest that this vote is no threat to anybody’s freedom of religion. They also suggest that minarets are no threat to the freedom of the Swiss to be Swiss, but this is to miss the point. The referendum was always about more than a few towers. Voters took aim at the minarets as a way of venting their fears about militant Islam and, more generally, their unease at the ways in which their country has been — and is being — changed by high levels of immigration. The latter is a factor that should not be underestimated. Despite playing host to various international organizations, numerous banks, and countless tourists, Switzerland is at its core still a conservative, somewhat insular place, comfortable in its own skin and more than a little suspicious of outsiders. There’s a reason why the Swiss joined the U.N. (the fools!) only in 2002, and wisely continue to stay outside the EU.

The trouble is that fear and unease make bad legislators. The effect of the new rules may be mainly symbolic, but symbolism can kick both ways. It’s no great stretch to suspect that the consequences of this vote will be counterproductive. Switzerland’s Muslims, who mostly hail from the Balkans or Turkey, are a largely moderate, secularized bunch. Unfortunately, the result of the referendum — along with some of the ugly rhetoric that preceded the vote — risks changing these peoples’ sense of their own identity. There’s a danger that they will come to view themselves as primarily defined by their common religious background rather than by their very different ethnic and cultural heritages or, for that matter, their hopes of a thoroughly Swiss future. Banning the minarets may fill the mosques.

There’s also a clear risk that what is preached in those mosques will lurch in a more extreme direction. This would be a natural response to the sense of siege and resentment that the vote may create, particularly if that resentment is fanned by money and ideas from Middle Eastern sources keen to stiffen the resolve of co-religionists toiling in the land of the wicked, oppressive kuffār.

Rather than spending their time in architectural micromanagement, it would be far smarter for the Swiss to increase their efforts to integrate the Muslims in their midst, and to do so in a way that creates no special spaces, privileges (other, perhaps, than the extension to Islam of the “official” status enjoyed by other religious denominations in many cantons), or obstacles for their religion. No religion should be fenced off from the hurly-burly of debate, criticism, and ridicule. The fear of giving (dread word) “offense” should not be allowed to trump free expression. That would be true in the case of any creed, but it’s particularly true of Islam, a muscular faith with little room for clear dividing lines between mosque and state. Muslims should be free to practice their religion in Switzerland, but Islam must be made to take its chances in the rough-and-tumble marketplace of ideologies essential to any open society, and to do so within democratic constraints.