Swiss Minaret Ban Popular in Europe -- Controversy Points to Deeper Malaise     Print

The Swiss ballot initiative banning minarets has touched political nerves throughout the European Union -- on both sides of the issue. Most of the 27 member-state governments, along with human-rights groups, reacted officially with regret about the step. But public opinion polls showed that big majorities of the electorates – bigger than the Swiss one – in major EU nations would favor a similar ban in their countries.

Switzerland of course does not belong to the EU, and no similar bans are likely to be forthcoming elsewhere. EU nations generally treat referenda as a government prerogative – in contrast to Switzerland, where the political system provides for ballot initiatives launched by citizens’ petitions. In this case, the necessary signatures were collected by an ultra-nationalist group, the Swiss People’s party, which labeled the minarets as symbols of rising Muslim political ambitions that could affect life in Switzerland.

Even so, the polls reflect what most observers see as a European reality: a “minaret moment” that could have happened almost anywhere in Europe these days. The controversy extends beyond the anti-Islamic sentiments in countries with large Muslim minorities such as France, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain. It is also caught up in mushrooming debates about “national identity” in many EU countries – an issue that has arisen in the wake of successive EU enlargements, much closer interaction with new member-states from the former Soviet sphere and debate about possible eventual membership for Turkey.

It came as a surprise to most forecasters when Swiss citizens voted by nearly 58 percent in favor of a constitutional ban on minarets. About one-third of Switzerland’s 7.5 million people turned out, and the ban was only opposed in four of the country’s 26 cantons, so the new law is valid. The outcome seemed to be emotionally out-sized, given the dimensions of the issue in Switzerland: Muslims comprise about five percent of the population, and the country’s four existing minarets (which won’t be affected) traditionally avoid broadcasting their prayer calls beyond the walls of the mosque. But the outcome proved to have a strong echo across Europe.

On the heels of the vote in Switzerland, polls in other European countries showed even stronger popular opposition to minarets as symbols of “foreign” cultural encroachment. In France, 73 percent of those polled in France by Le Figaro newspaper expressed opposition to seeing more minarets in the country. An even higher figure, 86 percent, was resulted from a similar poll published by L’Express. In Germany, Die Welt, a center-right newspaper, found 86 percent opposition when people were asked about the prospect of new minarets.  In Spain, El Mundo found that 80 percent of its sampling supported the Swiss rejection. 

These popular sentiments have shown up politically in the rise of small, extremist xenophobic parties in numerous EU countries, which have reinforced the weight of existing ultra-conservative parties in countries such as Austria and Britain. For example, Andrew Brons of the far-right British National Party (BNP) blogged in the lead-up to the referendum that Switzerland was resisting “Islamic colonization of Europe.”

Even mainstream politicians have become more cautious in their desire to reassure their voters about the survival of an undiluted national heritage while at the same time avoiding actual insults to Islam and Muslim voters. In France, the ruling center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UPM) of President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken the line that the country “does not necessarily need” more minarets but, at the same time, Islamic prayer rooms are “obviously completely essential” in France. One UPM minister has said publicly that “minarets symbolize the land of Islam, and France is not a land of Islam.”

There are opposing views in France about whether minarets, as symbols of Muslim sentiments, should be discussed in a current national debate about “national identity,” which itself has proved controversial but has been pursued in public meetings and in the media. On the official French website devoted to the national identity-debate, Debatidentitenationale.fr, one commentator posted this sentiment:  “For me, the classic image of French national identity is a village [skyline] topped by a church belltower, but in no case a village topped by minarets.”

There is no denying the groundswell of public concern about Muslim minorities and their reluctance in most cases to assimilate more completely into the traditions of the European countries where they have settled. The theme of Europe as a “Judeo-Christian” civilization was dropped from the Lisbon Treaty, where it had initially figured in a draft preamble.

Talk of proliferating minarets is symptomatic of concerns about immigration. The French, another blogger said, ought to be “defending [French] identity in refusing, as the Swiss have, the suicide of the nation provoked by an immigration [whose people] don’t want to integrate but want to impose their values on us.”

The debate on values has been envenomed by the global economic crisis, and a mood in parts of Europe that immigrants, legal and illegal, are consuming a disproportionate part of unemployment payments and other social benefits.

As such, issues produce increasingly acute polarization, some elected leaders have voiced their concern about a potential loss of political control and risk of violence, especially in central and eastern Europe, where Roma persons have been targeted for abuse. When France’s Catholic newspaper La Croix put up a website for online comments about the Swiss vote, more than 10 percent of the posts were deemed unpublishable because they involved anti-Semitism or other forms of incitement to racial hatred.

 

Will Fleeson