The Swiss have just taken the significant step of banning the building of minarets. Right across the continent of Europe this ban is sure to have important repercussions.
Some will say that here is evidence of racism and xenophobia, while others will hold that the Swiss are people who believe in their historic identity, and Muslims who wish to live in Switzerland will have to respect it.
The ban follows quite a bit of contention which started when the king of Saudi Arabia bought a house on the shore of Lake Geneva. Launching a building program without first obtaining the requisite permits, he was obliged to stop and pull down extensions. Geneva already had a mosque, and when the Saudis wanted to build another one, the city fathers replied that permission would be granted only when the Saudis reciprocated by allowing the building of a church in Saudi Arabia. Also following the brief arrest of his charmless son, Colonel Gaddhafi, the Libyan dictator, uttered such threats that the authorities quickly and abjectly apologized.
In a population of some seven million there are 400,000 Muslims worshipping in about 150 mosques, half a dozen of them with minarets. In the small town of Wangen, in 2005, the imam of a largely Turkish community applied to add a minaret to his mosque. He was allowed to do so, but the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, a crypto-Islamist, had been unwise enough to issue a blanket defiance to Western countries: “Mosques are our barracks, domes our helmets, minarets our bayonets.” A politician by the name of Christoph Blocher picked up the challenge and made a national issue of it. A lawyer by training, he is a successful industrialist, the founder of the Swiss People’s Party which has a right-wing platform, and he has been a government minister.
In Switzerland, the people are sovereign, and express their sovereignty through referendums. Blocher and the Swiss People’s Party have been campaigning for a couple of years for a referendum on the minaret issue. Posters depicted women in burkas surrounded by sharp bayonet-shaped minarets. In the minds of Swiss women, minarets herald sharia law and discrimination, and their votes appear to have been decisive. This is all the more remarkable because the institutions of government, the civil rights lobby, churchmen of every stripe, and finally the press, have been almost unanimously in favour of minarets, condemning any idea of banning them, and also putting about a fearful whisper that Islamists are bound to resort to reprisals and terror, as in the case of the cartoons in Denmark.
No country in Europe quite knows what to do about the Muslims who have come to live there. What exactly should be conceded to them, and why? These puzzling questions go to the core of national identity. Defying those who claim the right to set the terms of public debate, the Swiss have tried to draw a line. Whether the opinion-making elite of the entire continent will allow them to keep to it is quite another matter.