Scared of an Islamic Europe? Let’s vote on it!

The Swiss are holding a national referendum today. Referenda are an essential component of democracy but, in the main, they are relatively rare occurrences, usually only appearing as add-ons to the ballot at general election time. In Switzerland, however, they are a national pastime as all you need is 100,000 signatures to bring a question to the people. Consequently, the Swiss hold referenda four times per year with a number of proposals to be voted on at each quarterly occasion. Here’s what they are voting on this weekend:

1)       Arms exports ban sought

This arises every so often as human rights groups do not feel that exporting weapons of war fits in well with the Swiss ideal of neutrality.

2)      Tax on airplane fuel no longer to be put into the road funds

Who knows what that’s all about!

3)      A ban on the construction of minarets

Yes, a proposal to ban a feature of Middle Eastern architecture — the towers that are commonly attached to mosques.

Of course, it is number 3 on this list that interests us the most, particularly as we continue to examine the power of symbols and the ways in which certain groups will seek to control or ban certain symbols.

Even the poster was banned

The referendum on minarets was initiated by two conservative groups—Christian Fundamentalists and right wing nationalists. As usual with right wingers, fear and racism in equal measures are often used as prime motivators to whip up public opinion in their favour. According to Sean Ecker, these groups “argue that there are already too many Muslims in Switzerland and that a minaret is the architectural expression of Islam’s pretended supremacy among religions.”

Their approach is quite smart when you think about it, because how can you start a national debate on Islam and fear of Muslims without seeming like very obvious bigots? Simple – attack an object typically associated with the faith rather than the people themselves. Then allow the public debate to morph into one about Islam while occasionally throwing in emotional hand grenades such as accusing Swiss Muslims of wanting to replace Swiss law with Sharia law.

As Ecker correctly points out: “The fuss about minarets is of course purely symbolic – the objection isn’t to minarets per se. The Swiss right-wing fear the “Islamisation” of Switzerland … which is nonsense say Islamic organisations.”

That may be so, but the effectiveness of this campaign can be seen in comments such as this quote from Madeleine Trincat, a retiree from Geneva: “The problem is not so much the minarets, but rather what they represent. After the minarets, the muezzins will come, then they’ll ask us to wear veils and so on.”

Such fear is manifest in recent polls that show the final vote will be close, as only 53% say that they will reject the proposal.

For the record, Switzerland has between 300,000 and  400,000 Muslims but only about 13% actively practice their faith. There are approximately 150 Islamic cultural centres but only four of these have minarets. None of these minarets are used to call the faithful to prayer as they are are in Islamic countries.

The government, along with all major religions (except for the Fundamentalists), is urging the people to reject the proposal. Especially vocal have been Jewish organistions who point to their own history of repression in Europe where cupolas on synagogues were often banned.

Even if this ban succeeds in the referendum, it won’t pass the human rights treaties guaranteeing freedom of religious expression  to which Switzerland is a signatory, and these take precedent over local opinion. But that’s not really the point of this exercise, is it?

We await the result.

Additional note: here’s an example from Switzerland that demonstrates why referenda are not always reliable in making decisions that are beneficial for a democracy:

Swiss women didn’t get the vote until 1971–that’s right, 1971. This was because Swiss men  in national  referendums kept voting against women’s right to have the vote. Women didn’t get a say in this — they were excluded from voting in these referendums because they didn’t have the vote.

Changing social attitudes in the 1960s as well as a desire to be integrated into the wider European community saw an eventual change. But even in 1971, numerous cantons produced majorities against giving women the vote.

Further reading on symbols and symbolism at Notes:

Controlling the symbols of power: Who decides?
Symbolism in Action: Seven tons of World Trade Center steel in the USS New York
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4 Responses

  1. wow..that’s interesting

  2. Thank you.

  3. […] pointed out yesterday that the referendum in Switzerland calling for this ban was going to be a close call, but that […]

  4. excellent!!

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