Last week, the unexpected success of a Swiss referendum to ban the construction of minarets became Europe’s first legislative manifestation of anti-Islamic feeling.
The referendum, which was largely expected to have been voted down, came as a result of the petition instigated by the far-right populist Swiss People’s Party, a party already notorious for their campaign in 2007, which was denounced as racist by the UN after featuring a poster depicting a black sheep being kicked from the Swiss flag by white sheep, with the slogan “For more security”.
57% of voters backed the ban, and this in a country in which Islam is the largest minority religion, with Muslims apparently very well integrated in comparison to a number of other European countries. As a result, the ban will presumably create enmity between communities where previously it seems that there was little. This is a worrying example of far-right groups manipulating both people’s fears and the law in order to undermine community cohesion, particularly with regards to Islam.
Before going any further, perhaps it would be useful to highlight the current status of minarets in Switzerland. There are four. Among approximately 150 mosques. Clearly, they appear to be blotting out the sun in their prolificacy. While minarets, the towers traditionally used to call worshippers to prayer, are not necessary for Muslims to worship, they are a very tangible sign of Islam, and it seems that this is the point so expertly manipulated by the SPP. They claim that minarets are a political, rather than a religious symbol, and represent the Islamification which could eventually bring Sharia law to the country.
The emphasis that this ban does not prevent Muslims from worshipping diverts from the very real curbing of a form of religious expression, specifically imposed on only one community. This seems to send a sign that if Muslims must practice, they must do so out of sight.
The ban even seems to have struck a chord with some of the left in Switzerland, with the implications of Sharia, the honour killings, stonings, and forced marriages, being much emphasised, and leading prominent secularists and feminists to back the ban, attacking minarets as male power symbols.
It is worth noting that Switzerland’s system of plebiscitary democracy allows these single-issue referendums if enough signatures are collected on a petition, and this goes someway in explaining why this has happened. Such referendums are clearly constrictive to debate about the prominence of any religion in society, and reduce a dialogue about this difficult issue simply to ‘for’ or ‘against’. Of course, it is not fair or logical to deem everyone who voted to ban the minarets as an ‘Islamophobe’, as many may well have been opposed to overt religious symbols of any faith, yet one is constrained by the specifics of the petition. However, the answer does not lie in singling out one specific faith for restrictions.
Thus, the SPP has managed in emphasising the non-essential aspect of minarets to stir up fear for Islam in its extreme, predictably glossing over the attitudes of the majority of moderate Muslims who do not seek to impose Sharia law. It seems clear that for the SPP at least, the fight is not against just the minarets but against Islam in general, as a glance at some of their posters urging the ban will show.
Although this referendum result will have little effect on the actual worship of Muslims in Switzerland, it is undoubtedly divisive, and hardly conducive to the integration of Muslim communities. The result is also highly indicative of the increasingly fraught relationship with Islam in Europe, fuelled by the rise of a number of far-right parties across the continent, not least the Dutch “Party for Freedom’, who seek to ban the Qu’ran, and the BNP here in Britain. These parties are seeking to undermine any cohesion between diverse communities by playing upon fears of extreme Islamic belief, which in the whole, are not held by Muslims in Europe. By focusing specifically on the minarets, which currently have little presence in the country, the SPP have found a way to send a message to Muslims, while attempting to legitimise their tone by encouraging arguments of secularism and playing on the extreme fear of Sharia. The message seems to be, you may worship here, but only if we don’t hear about it. This referendum has only succeeded in reminding us of the ability of many of these far-right parties to manipulate democracy in order to single out specific groups.
One can only hope that this decision will be overturned in the European Court of Human Rights, and, if necessary, that a dialogue will ensue about the prominence of all overt religious symbols, regardless of the faith.