Switzerland: Populism storms the minarets
30 November 2009
The ban on building new minarets on mosques approved by Swiss voters on 29 November is an “in-your-face” attack on Muslim residents. But it also points up a socio-political problem that concerns every country on the continent, opines the European press.
Contrary to expectations and the exhortations of the main political parties, religious leaders and the business community in Switzerland, 57 per cent of the electorate voted to ban the building of new minarets on mosques in their country. The right-wing Swiss People’s Party, aka Democratic Union of the Centre (UDC), had succeeded in garnering enough signatures to hold a single-issue public referendum on the matter.
“Muslims in Switzerland don’t deserve this unfair protest vote prompted by fearmongering, bugaboos and ignorance,” writes Le Temps, pointing out that the electorate voted against minarets, not mosques. “Not all the voters are against Islam, but they are against what they perceive as an overrepresentation of Islam in our national life.” To political scientist Michael Hermann, voters have aired a protest first and foremost against immigration and globalisation, which they “perceive as a threat to traditional Swiss identity”. According to Die Tageszeitung, this manifestation of “racism is the upshot of wounded national pride”: these wounds have been inflicted by recent encroachments on banking secrecy, the Swissair bankruptcy, the collapse of other symbols of Swiss identity, as well as the “disgraceful way” Gaddafi treated the country during the Swiss hostage crisis in Libya.
The new visibility of Muslims
“What is most important is the indirect consequences of the referendum and their impact on the social climate in Switzerland,” stresses the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, which views the referendum as an outlet for pent-up grievances towards Islamists who are willing to resort to violence to achieve their ends. “The Muslims’ convictions, their image of women and their actually existing fanaticism provoked a riposte, and it would be a fatal error to disregard this malaise in the face of ‘the Other’,” analyses the Swiss German-language daily. Nor is this malaise confined to Switzerland. “Every European country has its specific symbols or topics through which European Muslims are targeted,” Tariq Ramadan reminds us in the Guardian. “In France it is the headscarf or burka; in Germany, mosques; in Britain, violence; cartoons in Denmark; homosexuality in the Netherlands – and so on.” “While European countries and citizens are going through a real and deep identity crisis,” adds Ramadan, a Swiss national and high-profile professor of Islamic studies at Oxford, “the new visibility of Muslims is problematic – and it is scary.”
“The result of this referendum is a big surprise,” writes Rzeczpospolita, “because the fear of and aversion to Islam circulate outside the mainstream.” In fact, the Warsaw daily observes, “the Swiss have shown that the integration of Muslims is Europe’s main social and cultural problem”, but “there was no other way for them to signal the problem than by means of a referendum, the result of which is a ban similar to those found in intolerant Muslim countries”.
A new transeuropean populism
Thus far, Libération adds, “Not a single government on the continent has done a satisfactory job of sorting out its relations to Islam, which happens to form an integral part of the European religious landscape.” Now xenophobia and hatred of immigrants provide ample “electoral capital for populist groups that are thriving throughout Europe”. “This is the fourth wave of populist nationalism, after that of postwar Europe, the limited outbreak in the 1960s, and that of the far-right parties in the 1980s like the Front national in France or the Vlaams Blok in Flanders,” analyses Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist in European populism. “Refusing to be assimilated with the extreme right wing, much less with neo-Fascism, these groups advocate ‘libertarian’ ultraliberalism – lower taxes, fewer rules, less social benefits – and a hardcore anti-Muslim agenda in the name of the struggle against multiculturalism.”
Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in The Netherlands and the Danish People’s Party have already announced they intend to organise similar referendums. And in Italy, vice-minister for infrastructures and transport Roberto Castelli from the Lega Nord hails the Swiss referendum as a “message of civilisation” and proposes adding the cross to the national flag to assert Italy’s Christian identity. To La Repubblica, this sort of initiative resurrects “the idea that religious freedom can be put to a public referendum – as though our fundamental rights could be subjected to changing majority opinion in any given age”.
Faced with this phenomenon, Libération argues “there is only one possible strategy”: “To promote, on our long-established secular foundations, the emergence of a European Islam that is faithful to its creed and acclimatised to the culture of human rights. Switzerland has just turned its back on it – which is a great boon for fundamentalists of every stripe."