Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Minarets of Zürich

For those of you who haven't been paying attention to the news beyond your friendly local news anchor, I have a bit of happenings from the outside. The Swiss people have voted to ban minarets from their country.
Minarets are towers attached to mosques from which Muslims are called to prayer. There are currently four minarets in Switzerland, and after the direct vote by the Swiss people on November 29, 2009 there will never be any more in any of the 26 Swiss cantons.
It is extremely surprising, at least to me, that this initiative came directly from the Swiss people, against the wishes of the Swiss government. How is that for turning things on its head, hey? Where I am from it usually goes the opposite way, with the government going ahead with its agenda despite the protests of its citizenry. Not so here. The government said all the right things about religious rights and integration, and they even blocked an attempted ban on minarets several times through its court system and legislative channels. The Swiss constitution, however, allows for direct legislation by the people, and certain right-wing groups were able to push through all the appropriate channels to get a referendum that the government couldn't stop.
The most shocking thing about this whole ordeal is just how it went down. Like I said, the Swiss government said and did all the right things to promote equality and cohesion, to not alienate the religious minority, which, despite what its proponents say, this does. The people also said the right thing from the start, with poll after poll showing that most Swiss would not vote for such legislation. Those were public polls however, with face to face interaction. And they did show growing support over time for this initiative. However, behind the closed doors of the voting booth, with the security of anonymity, the Swiss turned tail and voted overwhelmingly to ban minarets.
I am deeply disturbed and surprised by this. What this vote does is lays down in a very undeniable and concrete way the fact that there is still a large degree of Xenophobia in the west. It's undeniable. I understand that Switzerland can be pretty conservative at times, but this is just out there. It shows that there is a deep, deep distrust of Islam in modern Switzerland, and it is easy to extrapolate that beyond the confines of the Alps, whether realistic or not. While they were all saying the right things in public, they Swiss people showed behind the curtain what they believe and say behind closed doors, and it doesn't look good for the Swiss Muslim community.
Predictably the worldwide community has begun its outcry, but this is a bit of a sticky situation. If it were the Swiss government in Bern leading this charge it would be one thing. Pressure could be brought to bear in the halls of The Hague or the United Nations in New York City. But the Swiss government is part of the outcry. So how do you, as a worldwide community, scold the Swiss populace. That's tough, especially when they followed the purest form of democracy in order to do this. They followed the ancient Swiss constitution and every man, woman, and probably child, I mean, this IS Switzerland after all, from Neuchâtel to Ticino to Schaffhausen had an opportunity to vote for tolerance and integration or singling out and condemnation. Unfortunately they chose the later, but how do you punish a country, a government, for stopping democracy from happening? How do you force a government to circumvent the will of its people? The world has spent hundreds of years fighting against that.
So I guess the no one knows what to do here. This would not have flown anywhere but Switzerland, I can tell you that, and if a group had tried to get church spires banned in the country there would have been hell to pay. But the people have spoken and the 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland will have to deal, at least for the meantime. Several groups have pledged to test the ban by applying to build minarets and appealing the decisions to the Swiss courts and beyond. Inevitably, I think this will get turned over by the European Court on Human Rights or wherever, but that is a moot point. The point here is what has been proclaimed by the Swiss from their mountaintop, and just what it means to the rest of the world at large. For now there will be no Minarets of Zürich, no matter how cool a musical or book title that would be.

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