In a society more famous for being punctual, neutral (if a bit dull) and fabulously wealthy, the determination of the majority of Swiss voters to impede what they see as “Islamisation” in a country where Muslims account for a measly 5% of the population, with only 4 mosques adorned with minarets, seems petty at best, and churlish at worst.
Increasingly, we are witnessing in Western Europe – in the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Germany, France, UK and now Switzerland, a unique form of religious and cultural tolerance where you are only tolerated as long as you subscribe to the same religion and customs as everybody else. What this plainly shows, is that prosperity and high educational standards alone are not enough to safeguard a society from being shrouded in prejudice and narrow-mindedness.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, giddy from his success in banning the hijab in schools across France, is now calling on his country to re-evaluate and redefine what it means to “be French”. It is quite safe to assume that this redefinition, useless as it may be, will likely exclude the cosmopolitan contributions by immigrants, as the right-wing movement cling on to narrowly-defined ‘national values’ to validate their own self-worth. In their minds, the only way to achieve integration is through assimilation, which is really a less offensive substitute for ‘cultural dominance’.
Perhaps the most pathetic aspect of the Swiss ban is their failure to maintain the decency to be honest about their motivations. The notion that this ban is to stop the rise of ‘fundamentalist Islam’ is absurd, the link between the two as imaginary as the connection between Saddam Hussein and WMD which the Bush administration in collaboration with Tony Blair sought to concoct. The ban on minarets themselves is largely symbolic, since the muezzin call to prayer is outlawed in Switzerland. In fact, the ban is there to make it known to Swiss Muslims – who prior to this had the same rights as other Swiss citizens – that they are simply not welcome. Too timid to say it out loud, the Swiss voters, emboldened by their majority numbers, chose instead to hide behind the ban in their desperation to express contempt for customs different to their own.
It is easy for Muslims in other parts of the world, in Asia, the USA, Australia and the Middle East, to voice our concerns vociferously and in no uncertain terms. But for Swiss Muslims, who will continue their lives in a decidedly more hostile environment, they must wander if they could maintain their faith in the same democratic process that has now restricted their religious freedom.