x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Swiss voters seen as fearing Islam

By voting on Sunday in favour of an initiative banning the construction of minarets, the Swiss may have caused real harm in an attempt to remedy a non-existent problem. The measure may turn out to be illegal but the damage to Switzerland's reputation has probably already been done. Yet the intolerance that the Swiss will be seen to represent, extends much more widely across Europe.

By voting on Sunday in favour of an initiative banning the construction of minarets, the Swiss may have caused real harm in an attempt to remedy a non-existent problem. The measure may turn out to be illegal but the damage to Switzerland's reputation has probably already been done. Yet the intolerance that the Swiss will be seen to represent, extends much more widely across Europe. "International concern about the initiative increased after the launch last month, of a campaign poster that was widely criticised as xenophobic: it featured a woman peering menacingly out of a black niqab in front of a mass of black minarets jutting like missiles out of the Swiss national flag," The National reported. " 'This will definitely damage Switzerland's international reputation,' Hisham Maizar, the president of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland, said in an interview. 'I doubt whether the decision can be implemented because it's probably illegal and the European Court of Human Rights is certain to take action against this.'" An editorial in The Christian Science Monitor noted: "what started as a local concern about a mosque and minaret was whipped into a national campaign by right-wing and ultraconservative parties. Following the script of fear-mongering hyperbole, they warned against the Islamisation of Switzerland (Muslims make up about 4 per cent of the population), against burqas and sharia, and against Islamic power and extremism. "A minaret ban couldn't possibly address those issues - hyperbolic or not. Indeed, the ban may well increase alienation between Muslims and non-Muslims. That could further enhance the political advantage of the parties that pushed the referendum, which was backed by 58 per cent of the voting public. "So, the Swiss have just approved a constitutional change that won't do anything to solve its nonexistent problem of runaway Islamic extremism." On Sunday the Swiss government issued a statement saying that it would respect the voters' choice. "For Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, the outcome reflected fears among the population of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies, 'which reject our national traditions and which could disregard our legal order'," Swissinfo reported. " 'These concerns have to be taken seriously. The government has always done so and will continue to do so in future. However, we take the view that a ban on the construction of new minarets is not a feasible means of countering extremist tendencies,' she said. "Widmer-Schlumpf underlined that Sunday's vote was only directed against the construction of new minarets. 'It is not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture. Of that the government gives its assurance.' "Nevertheless, Saida Keller-Messahli, president of the Forum for an Advanced Islam, said the public's fears had been too great and 'hatred had won over reason'." Reuters said: "While Switzerland's Muslim community of some 300,000 is relatively small there is wider concern about immigration in a country where foreigners make up more than a fifth of the total 7.7 million population. "Nationwide voter turnout was about 53 per cent, higher than a more usual 35 to 45 per cent, and 22 of 26 cantons, or provinces, voted in favour of the initiative. The decision went against recent polls, which had indicated a slim majority opposed a ban. "There was marked division between urban areas like Zurich and French-speaking areas - which are traditionally more liberal - and rural, German speaking cantons like Schaffhausen, where some 70 per cent of voters supported the initiative. " 'It represents a two finger gesture against the towns, foreigners, the powerful, the better educated and the like. The pattern of voting confirms that,' said Swiss culture and politics expert Jonathan Steinberg of the University of Pennsylvania." Agence France-Presse reported: "The imam of Switzerland's biggest mosque, in Geneva, called on the Muslim world to 'respect, without accepting,' the outcome, and to avoid abandoning ties with Switzerland. "But Youssef Ibram sharply criticised the Swiss government for not intervening more forcefully in defence of religious freedom before the referendum got off the ground. " 'The most painful for us is not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote. Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community,' he added." Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reported that religious groups there condemned the ban. "'This development reflects extreme Islamophobia among people in the West,' said Khurshid Ahmad, vice president of Jamaat-e-Islami, a Islamic political party that is represented in Pakistan's parliament. "'This also represents very serious discrimination against Muslims.' Pakistan is the world's second most populous Muslim nation." The renowned Swiss Islamic scholar, Tariq Ramadan, wrote in The Guardian: "For the first time since 1893 an initiative that singles out one community, with a clear discriminatory essence, has been approved in Switzerland. One can hope that the ban will be rejected at the European level, but that makes the result no less alarming. What is happening in Switzerland, the land of my birth? "There are only four minarets in Switzerland, so why is it that it is there that this initiative has been launched? My country, like many in Europe, is facing a national reaction to the new visibility of European Muslims. The minarets are but a pretext - the UDC [Union Démocratique du Centre, also known as the Swiss People's Party] wanted first to launch a campaign against the traditional Islamic methods of slaughtering animals but were afraid of testing the sensitivity of Swiss Jews, and instead turned their sights on the minaret as a suitable symbol. "Every European country has its specific symbols or topics through which European Muslims are targeted. In France it is the headscarf or burka; in Germany, mosques; in Britain, violence; cartoons in Denmark; homosexuality in the Netherlands - and so on. It is important to look beyond these symbols and understand what is really happening in Europe in general and in Switzerland in particular: while European countries and citizens are going through a real and deep identity crisis, the new visibility of Muslims is problematic - and it is scary." Mr Ramadan also said: "I have been repeating for years to Muslim people that they have to be positively visible, active and proactive within their respective western societies. In Switzerland, over the past few months, Muslims have striven to remain hidden in order to avoid a clash. It would have been more useful to create new alliances with all these Swiss organisations and political parties that were clearly against the initiative. Swiss Muslims have their share of responsibility but one must add that the political parties, in Europe as in Switzerland have become cowed, and shy from any courageous policies towards religious and cultural pluralism. It is as if the populists set the tone and the rest follow." Deutsche Welle said: "In Germany, a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said the vote showed that there is a fear of Islam in Switzerland that also exists in Germany. "Wolfgang Bosbach told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper that criticism of the referendum outcome would be counterproductive and that the fear of a growing Islamisation of society 'must be taken seriously'. "He told the Hamburger Abendblatt daily that he was not surprised at the vote, saying that the building of large mosques in Germany had also been met with widescale opposition form the public. " 'For years I have noticed a big gap between public opinion and the authorities' on the issue, he said, recommending a open and frank debate about all mosque-building projects in Germany with the aim of reaching a compromise." In an editorial, The Guardian said: "Switzerland will suffer as a result of yesterday's vote, its cherished national brand tarnished. But it is too easy to blame the Swiss alone. Many of the things that drove yesterday's vote - growing opposition to migration, the rise of the far right, widespread hatred and fear of Islam - apply just as much to other European countries, including Britain. This raises an uncomfortable possibility. Was yesterday's result a product of Swiss exceptionalism, or simply the chance existence in Switzerland of a political system that allows popular referendums? Can we be sure that the people of Austria, France, Britain or the Netherlands would have voted differently, if given the chance?"

pwoodward@thenational.ae