Nadette De Visser writes: In Europe as well as the United States the political arena has shifted to the fringes. Measured, moderate stands on issues of national and international importance are zapped by high-voltage soundbites, obliterated by incendiary one-liners.
Anger is the coveted political currency of the moment—anger fueled by fear of foreigners, by fears for the future — anger fueled by populist politicians at home and abroad. And even little Switzerland, the Continent’s hoary paradigm of democracy, has not been immune.
Until this year, in fact, it seemed all but certain that the right-wing populists of the SVP (the Schweizer Volkspartei) would push through a referendum calling for the expulsion of “immigrants,” even second or third generation Swiss born, if they were found guilty of a legal offense as minor as two parking tickets.
(Donald Trump has made essentially the same idea part of his 10-point immigration plan: “Zero tolerance for criminal aliens,” he proclaims. “We will issue detainers for all illegal immigrants who are arrested for any crime whatsoever, and they will be placed into immediate removal proceedings.”)
But in Switzerland, the SVP populists found themselves up against a new grass roots movement, Operation Libero, that seemed to come from nowhere. The SVP referendum lost badly, and all of a sudden all eyes turned to a political newcomer—26-year-old driven, committed, and comely Flavia Kleiner, the movement’s co-president. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: The European Union is to show its determination to make no concessions to the UK on Brexit terms by telling Switzerland it will lose access to the single market if it goes ahead with plans to impose controls on the free movement of EU citizens.
The Swiss-EU talks, under way for two years but now needing a solution possibly within weeks, throws up the exact same issues that will be raised in the UK’s exit talks – the degree to which the UK must accept free movement of the EU’s citizens as a price for access to the single market.
The Swiss are desperate to strike a deal in order to give its politicians time to pass the necessary laws to meet a February 2017 deadline imposed by a legally binding referendum in 2014.
The former president of the FDP-Liberal Radicals, Philipp Müller, on Sunday said the Brexit threat should serve as a warning to the Swiss, amid suggestions in Brussels the prospect of UK-EU exit talks meant there was less willingness to give ground on freedom of movement. [Continue reading…]
It wasn’t meant to go this way. For months we had been told that the efforts to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland were doomed. The last surveys suggested around 34% of the Swiss population would vote for this shocking initiative. Last Friday, in a meeting organised in Lausanne, more than 800 students, professors and citizens were in no doubt that the referendum would see the motion rejected, and instead were focused on how to turn this silly initiative into a more positive future.
Today that confidence was shattered, as 57% of the Swiss population did as the Union Démocratique du Centre (UDC) had urged them to – a worrying sign that this populist party may be closest to the people’s fears and expectations. 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 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. [continued…]
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 percent, higher than a more usual 35 to 45 percent, and 22 of 26 cantons, or provinces, voted in favor 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 percent 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. [continued…]
Bigotry is on the rise in “the westerly excrescence of the continent of Asia.”
That unpoetic but topographically-precise description of Europe comes from the Oxford archeologist, Barry Cunliffe.
Whenever voices declaring that European culture is under threat are at their most strident, it’s always worth remembering the actual nature of Europe’s physical form.
As a continent it is nothing more than a malleable contrivance with its ambiguous, historically shifting eastern edge. As a result, it is and always has been, an ethnic and cultural melting pot.
Thus the irony when Europe’s self-appointed protectors take a firm stand in the name of its defense: they so often lack a real appreciation for the very thing to which they have pledged their allegiance.
Why is it that the people who most easily become possessed by ideas about cultural purity are themselves so often culturally impoverished?
Because culture in its richness and complexity is not the real issue.
This is about how individuals respond to the other.
Does the unfamiliar prompt interest and curiosity?
Or does it provoke fear?
Fear in response to the other says more about the fearful than it says about the objects they fear.
The fear of the foreign is at its root a fear of becoming foreign. It is a fear of becoming a stranger in one’s own land.
* * *
In the latest outbreak of European xenophobia, the minaret has become a missile in a campaign to ban their construction — that is, the construction of minarets, not missiles.
This is a curious iconic transformation. Is the Swiss People’s Party suggesting that Switzerland, in which currently there are only four minarets, is at risk of becoming a missile-minaret launching pad threatening the rest of Europe with Islamization? (After all, their posters depict missile-minarets ready for launch — not incoming missile-minarets about to explode.)
By Sunday it became apparent that Swiss voters had little interest in dissecting the visual absurdity of the campaign poster — a majority seemed to have bought the implicit message: Islam = violence, death and destruction.
The campaign’s final week of fear-mongering managed to raise support for the ban from 37% up to 57.5%, with passage in the majority of cantons meaning that a constitutional amendment will follow.
As The Guardian reported:
The controversial referendum on Sunday, accompanied by a prohibition campaign denounced as racist and in violation of human rights, is the latest tussle in Europe over the limits of multiculturalism and immigrant lifestyles.
Pushed by anti-immigrant rightwing populists, it has triggered months of debate in a country that uses direct democracy for single-issue politics. The referendum has turned into much more than a vote on architecture and urban planning.
“The minaret has got nothing to do with religion. It’s a symbol of political power, a prelude to the introduction of sharia law,” argued Ulrich Schlüer, of the rightwing Swiss People’s party, an architect of the campaign.
Two years ago the SPP became the strongest party in Switzerland, with an anti-immigrant election campaign that featured posters of three white sheep kicking a black sheep off a red and white Swiss flag. UN experts and human rights activists condemned the campaign as overtly racist.
This time the SPP has plastered the country with posters showing the same flag as a base for several black minarets, portrayed as missiles, alongside a woman clad in a black burqa. Church leaders, the Jewish community and Muslim leaders have all opposed the campaign. The foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, warned that a vote in favour risked turning Switzerland into “a target for Islamic terrorism”. The city of Basel and other towns have proscribed the incendiary posters.
Amnesty International said: “Freedom of religious belief is a basic human right and changing the Swiss constitution to ban the construction of minarets would clearly breach the rights of the country’s Muslims.”
UN human rights experts have said the proposed ban violates freedom of religion and liberty. The Swiss justice minister, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, has agreed, declaring that it would breach anti-discrimination laws and rights to free religious observance, raising the question of why the campaign has been allowed.
Tariq Ramadan, Switzerland’s most famous Muslim, suggests that what his country’s Muslim population is being told is that the only good Swiss Muslim is an invisible Muslim.
Tariq Ramadan: One must respect the fear of ordinary citizens, while one also must resist in civic fashion populist parties which are instrumentalising fear in order to win elections. The majority of our fellow Swiss citizens are not racists: they are afraid and they would like to understand. Swiss people of the Muslim faith have a real responsibility to communicate and explain…. At the same time, one must refuse to allow populism to install itself. The problem is that the UDC [the Democratic Union of the Centre, another name for the Swiss People’s Party] initiative is using the symbol of the minaret to target Islam as a religion. I have had debates with Mr. Freysinger. [Oskar Freysinger is a parliamentarian in the Swiss People’s Party and a driving force in the campaign.] What does he say? That “Islam is not integratable into Swiss society.” So he says to me, to me, and I am Swiss like him, that “You are not a good Swiss person, you cannot be one, since your quality of being a Muslim prevents you from being a good Swiss person.” That is the foundation of the debate: the problem is Islam, not minarets.
Arnaud Bédat: But the minaret, you write so yourself, is not a pillar of Muslim faith.
TR: Yes, but is that a reason to say “Since it is not an obligation, you don’t need it”?… Does it have to be that the only good Swiss Muslim is an invisible Muslim? Is this the future of our pluralism and of our living together?
AB: Numerous Islamic countries forbid other religions on their territory — there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia, for example. Is it not ultimately logical that part of the West reject Islam on its territory?
TR: This is the oft-repeated argument of reciprocity. It is untenable. Respect for the rights and dignity of people is not a question of trade. It falls to us, to us in Switzerland, to preserve our principles of respect, and to not allow ourselves to be colonised by the unacceptable practices of other societies. Let us say first of all that it is wrong to say that religious minorities are always discriminated against in Muslim-majority societies. There are synagogues, churches and temples [there]. However, one should not deny the fact that discrimination and the denial of rights do occur, as in Saudi Arabia. One cannot hold Swiss citizens and residents of Muslim faith responsible for the actions of certain dictatorial governments from which they have often, by the way, fled for political or economic reasons. What one can expect from them [Swiss Muslims], nevertheless, from a moral point of view, is a denunciation of discrimination and ill treatment. That is something I do not stop doing, which has closed the doors of several countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to me.
AB: Do you dream, as you detractors claim, of a world that is entirely Muslim?
TR: No. I was born, have lived and have studied in Switzerland; my whole philosophical education comes from that. I have always believed that those who do not share my beliefs allow me to be more myself. The absolute power or uniformisation of a religion on earth would mean corruption and death. The worst that could happen to Muslims is if the whole world became Muslim! That is not even what God’s project is. There has to be diversity and difference. Because difference teaches us humility and respect.
To which I would add: The cultural ecosystem, or the ethnosphere as Wade Davis has named it, thrives on diversity.
Monoculture is inherently unstable because it lacks the strength that comes from constant adaptation necessitated by complexity and constant change.
Think about it. What would Europe be had it never been open to the influence of foreign cultures?
Christianity wasn’t born in Zurich — it came from the Middle East!
On Sunday Swiss voters will have their say on a controversial proposal to impose a constitutional ban on the building of minarets.
The proposal is backed by conservative Christian groups and by the biggest party in Switzerland’s parliament, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which says allowing minarets would lead to the Islamisation of the country.
There are an estimated 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland, most from the former Yugoslavia or Turkey. Islam is the country’s most widespread religion after Christianity, but although there are Muslim prayer rooms, proper mosques with minarets are few and far between.
There are just four across Switzerland, and in recent years, all applications to build minarets have been turned down. [continued…]