04/12/2009

Minarets that hide the forest

On Sunday the Swiss vote gave a massive approval (57.5%) to the ban on minarets in the country. The reactions that followed this « people’s choice » were, and still are a week later, passionate and indicate above all that the ins and outs of the Swiss voting are complex.

The issue is apparently religious, but like many others, it is only the appearance. Rabbi of France Gilles Bernheim though gave two probable religious reasons to the Swiss choice in the Figaro : on the one hand, « a defense of the Christian identity that choose the wrong method: filling the churches would be more useful than reducing the visibility of mosques”, on the other hand, a fear of a mass return of religion in the society, through the Muslims.

To defend the ban on minarets, some also used the argument of the “Saudi analogy”, so designated by Reza Zia-Ebrahimi in a comment written in Le Temps. The phenomenon is not confined to Riyadh, as other predominantly Muslim countries also prohibit or restrict the construction of new places of worship for other religions. But since when should these countries be considered as examples? And since when has the law of retaliation been consistent with human rights?

The reason for this vote is indeed a xenophobia, conscious or not, that is itself rooted in recent trends of Western societies: a more and more visible immigration, a higher fertility rate among the Muslim community, the economic crisis … But if the crisis is the same as elsewhere, in Switzerland, Muslims are mostly working in the business sector and are viewed as the least conservative in Europe (cf. Levine’s opinion on the English website of AlJazeera « In fear of ‘Eurabia’? « ) Moreover, many studies have shown that Muslim women were adopting the Western lifestyle, which reduces the number of births per woman.

Reza Zia-Ebrahimi (see above), presenting himself as Iranian, Muslim, secular and Swiss, calls for a return to the Switzerland that owes its wealth to its « unfailing hospitality to persecuted Huguenots during the sixteenth century”. He noted that instead of a model of democracy, the Swiss Confederation is becoming more « a reference to the extreme right and neo-fascists of all stripes. »

The outcome of Sunday’s vote was indeed very surprising. Few expected this result. The subsequent controversy therefore examines the functioning and the legitimacy of direct democracy when facing populist strategies as those used by the UDC and the UDF in the campaign against minarets. The images conveyed by these parties are shocking and using in an unacceptable way the irrational fears of some people towards Islam.

It is nevertheless useful to recall that if the arguments for banning minarets are unfounded, some arguments against that same prohibition are also not defendable. The first one is undoubtedly the fear of attending an Arab boycott of Switzerland, or in other words, the withdrawal of Arab interests from Swiss banks. Another biased argument is to show that such a vote will only strengthen the cause of Al Qaeda. While it is true that this vote will provide Islamist terrorism with new weapons, one cannot invoke this as a valid argument. If the refusal of the ban on day succeeds, it has to be « for » democracy and the respect of human rights and not « for fear » of reprisals.

As highlighted by the daily 24 hours, Switzerland must now « explain its vote abroad », either to defend it or apologize. Europe has, for its part, the duty to draw lessons for the future, not only on the immigrants’ integration, but especially on how to outwit a still-strengthening extreme right.

Nathalie Janne d’Othée