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Switzerland Bans Minarets: A Silly Referendum Highlights Real Anxieties

December 5, 2009

Lord Byron wrote, in a footnote to his poem The Giaour, that the Islamic azaan calling the faithful to prayer could be “solemn and beautiful beyond all the bells in Christendom”. Having heard some azaans during visits to Malaysia, I’d agree that solemn and beautiful are two words that come to mind when the ancient exhortation rings out from a minaret in the stillness of a tropical evening. The rest of the time, however, azaans can be a bloody nuisance – interrupting conversations, derailing trains of thought, waking drowsy mortals literally at the crack of dawn with the implausible assertion that “prayer is better than sleep”.

This minaret in Zurich presents a clear threat (?!) to Western civilisation. Image made available by Wikimedia Commons user Parpan05 under a Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike 3.0 License.

Switzerland, for one, will have none of it. “Noise pollution” regulations prevent the five minarets in the country (counting a decorative one on the house of a 19th century chocolatier) from being used for their traditional purpose, and recently the Swiss have even turned against the minarets themselves. Apparently Muslims all over the country began applying to build more minarets, and the boisterous populists of the Swiss People’s Party (Schweizerische Volkspartei, or SVP) decided they were damned if they’d let them. The SVP managed to put a ban on the construction of further minarets to a popular vote, and to everyone’s surprise the measure passed by a healthy margin. Swiss business leaders and non-SVP politicians are already warning of dire consequences for Switzerland’s economy, diplomatic standing, and even security. So far international reaction has been predictable, with Islamic figures and mainstream European politicians condemning the ban while “far-right” figures like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France rub their hands in glee.

From my point of view, the most interesting thing about the controversy is the way an architectural feature became symbolic of much broader anxieties around Islamic immigration into Switzerland. The SVP’s anti-minaret campaign involved a characteristically unsubtle poster depicting stark black minarets that looked almost like missiles. SVP politician Ulrich Schluer explained his position as follows:

The minaret “is a political symbol against integration; a symbol more of segregation, and first of all, a symbol to try to introduce Sharia law parallel to Swiss rights,” Ulrich Schluer said in a telephone interview.

Even if this were true, suppressing the “symbol” would do nothing to address the underlying trend, and in that respect the ban on minarets is a strangely impotent gesture even from the SVP’s perspective. Furthermore, that perspective is far from universal in Switzerland. In fact, the whole kerfuffle conforms to a familiar pattern of establishment figures and the media shrugging at concerns over the growth of Islam in the West while populists and many ordinary people succumb to an unease that sometimes spills into unusual channels. The public discussion prior to the vote was very lopsided:

Opinion polls showing a majority of voters would reject a ban were only to be expected, says Zurich political scientist Michael Hermann, when most of the Swiss media had already categorised a ban on minarets as politically incorrect and its supporters stupid.

Many articles I’ve read have taken a tone that Hermann would find familiar. According to the Times, “the ban on minarets… completely misunderstands the nature of a secular, constitutional democracy”. Doug Saunders, in the Globe and Mail, flirted with an absurd comparison between the Swiss vote and Kristallnacht. I’m reminded of the media storm that broke out a couple of years ago when Herouxville, Quebec reacted to the presence of a single immigrant family by formally declaring that stoning and female circumcision, among other things, would not be permitted.

I agree with the sneering pundits that anti-stoning declarations and minaret bans are unhelpful and paranoid, but I’m less prepared to dismiss their supporters as idiots or Islamophobes. Instead, I think those people are asking an entirely legitimate question: how will Islamic immigration change our society? It’s a telling point that Swiss women were especially likely to fall into the anti-minaret camp, sometimes citing fears of being forced into burkas. I can’t imagine, of course, that many Swiss Muslims really have that on their to-do list. But when it only takes a few mouse clicks to find a story of a minister in the Indonesian government telling a prayer meeting that pornography causes earthquakes, or refugee children from Eritrea and Djibouti virtually hounding a Jewish teacher out of her job at an Ontario school, it’s hard not to notice that some forms of Islam can be hateful and illiberal. People in Switzerland, and in Herouxville and the rest of Canada, are not being unreasonable when they wonder if some percentage of Muslim newcomers might bring such ideas with them. Until politicians and journalists become more willing to address this problem, the number of voters who see minarets as symbolic weapons of mass destruction can only be expected to increase.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. kabutar permalink
    December 5, 2009 1:17 pm

    I’m Muslim, but I agree with you that it’s a symbol of fears of underlying trends – whether those trends exist or not! But I do think it’s ridiculous that people have a fear of being forced into sharia law just by the presence of immigrants. Not to say I can’t understand why people have this fear, but realistically, if any immigrant population wanted to inflict sharia on the populace at general, there would be an outcry, and rightly so – and I suspect I’d be right there with the outcry!

    But stating that minarets are “a political symbol against integration; a symbol more of segregation, and first of all, a symbol to try to introduce Sharia law parallel to Swiss rights” is nonsense and smacks of fear-mongering and xenophobia… haven’t Sikh communities built Sikh temples, etc? Good grief.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      December 5, 2009 2:10 pm

      I completely agree that anxieties about Sharia law being inflicted on citizens of Western democracies are highly overblown. In theory, this might actually be possible through Swiss mechanisms of direct democracy, but an implausibly huge number of hardline Muslim immigrants would be required.

      Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but I think this concern would evaporate (or at least retreat to the fringes) rather quickly if politicians would be more forthright about explaining why attempts to impose Sharia would be unlikely to succeed. The more difficult discussions will probably revolve around subtler issues. For one thing, there’s the possibility that some Muslims will begin to demand bans on things they offensive as their numbers and political clout increase. Silly cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed come to mind here. For another, there’s the possibility that their votes will simply move Western countries in the direction of social conservatism and increased deference to religion. As an atheist with libertine sensibilities, I do find these scenarios worrying.

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