Europe was stunned late last year when 58 percent of Swiss voters banned the construction of minarets. The vote was roundly condemned as intolerant and xenophobic. No doubt such sentiments were in play, but the vote's significance shouldn't be exaggerated -- it doesn't affect the operation of mosques or the ability of Islamic believers to practice their faith. The vote does appear to reflect, however, the frustration of Swiss voters that their fears about Islamic radicalism are being ignored in a climate of political correctness.
Stifling legitimate lines of inquiry when it comes to radicalism can lead to disastrous results, as was shown by the massacre of 14 people at Fort Hood in Texas last November 5 by an Army psychiatrist with jihadist sympathies. True, Switzerland doesn't have nearly the integration problems that France or Britain do. Its 300,000 Muslims -- 4 percent of the population -- hail primarily from the Balkans, and are largely secular and productive. But complaints about rising crime by foreigners have been largely ignored by the governing parties. That's why the opposition Swiss People's Party found fertile ground when it proposed its "wedge issue" -- a ban on minarets -- on the dubious grounds that they represent a political rather than religious statement in favor of Islam.
Opponents quickly overreacted after backers were successful in getting the required 100,000 signatures. Cities from Basel to Lausanne banned the most popular anti-minaret poster, depicting a burqa-clad woman next to missile-like minarets standing atop the Swiss flag. The Swiss Federal Commission against Racism claimed the poster was "tantamount to the denigration and defamation of the peaceful Swiss Muslim population."
Swiss voters clearly disagreed. The anti-minaret measure won in 22 out of the country's 26 cantons, and was backed by all three major linguistic groups -- German, French, and Italian. The reaction from the political class was withering. Andreas Gross, a member of the Swiss parliament who is also president
of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, called the ban a "slap in the face to everyone who has an idea of human rights. This is clearly the result of a lack of information and political education in Switzerland." In effect, he called the voters stupid, claiming they "have been misdirected by their emotions. The foundations of Switzerland's direct democracy have failed."
That is clearly wrong. Swiss direct democracy showed its mettle when Swiss voters used it to stand up to their political elites, as happened here. Having said that, the November 29 vote, for all the hand-wringing leading up to it, was a decidedly mild-mannered sort of protest. Nobody's freedom of worship was threatened, but a symbolic message was sent.
But what message, exactly? The vote betrayed an undercurrent of fear among the Swiss -- a fear that is not without cause. There is no denying the connection between radical imams and terrorist acts. Nor can there be any looking away from the fact that too many European Muslims flatly reject the norms of their host countries, sometimes in ways that are criminal: honor killings, child brides, and the like.
Swiss government officials officially accepted the vote of the people, but in reality they are still more interested in focusing on how to "educate" the people to overcome their "stereotype" of Muslims.
Swiss president Hans-Rudolf Merz campaigned hard against the minaret ban, arguing that it was inconsistent with the ideals of a free democracy. He made good points, but undermined his own arguments by traveling last summer to the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Republic in order to apologize to Muammar Qaddafi for the arrest of the dictator's son in Geneva on charges he was beating the hired help. This groveling sparked outrage in Switzerland, even as it failed to secure the release of two Swiss businessmen arrested in Libya in retaliation for Hannibal Qaddafi's brief two-day detention. Or consider the Swiss's government's knee-jerk support of Palestine at Israel's expense, illustrated last fall when Bern endorsed the Goldstone Report at the UN's general assembly -- a document that accuses Israel of having committed war crimes, as it defended itself against attacks from Hamas. The opportunity to ban minarets was likely seen as a rare opportunity to speak out publicly against radical Islam, for any Swiss who felt that Hamas deserved equal or greater blame for the carnage in Gaza.
A glance at Switzerland's neighbors likely also played a large role. Muslims in France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany have become increasingly marginalized. In response, those populations have often turned to the more extreme interpretations of their religions, giving their hosts ever more reason to mistrust and mistreat them. Polls in Switzerland showed that women were significantly more in favor of the minaret ban than men. Socialist politicians were furious to see feminist members of their party supporting the ban. One of them, Julia Onken, warned that failure to ban minarets would be "a signal of the state's acceptance of the oppression of women." She sent out 4,000 e-mails attacking Muslims who condoned acts like the beating of women.
With the vote to ban minarets, Swiss and other European leaders have been put on notice that it's time to examine their own groupthink and collective taboos against addressing the cultural and political consequences of Islam's rise in Europe.
There is much the swiss, as the rest of Europe, could have done to protect their way of life, such as welcoming Muslims into traditionally European culture; reacquainting themselves with their own long-lost dominant religion, Christianity; further liberalizing their economies and giving immigrants opportunities for glory in business, not jihad; flouting political correctness and punishing Islamic extremists where necessary; and defending the supremacy of civil courts over the sharia tribunals that have sprung up in Europe's shadows. Of course, all of this would require a blunt affirmation that Western culture is worth preserving, even at the expense of "multiculturalism." But despite the wealth and stability that capitalism and democracy have brought to Europe, such an affirmation has so far proven a political risk too great for Europe's leaders.
Yet banning minarets does nothing to address that fear. It merely makes it less likely that the average Swiss will be confronted by a visible symbol of Islam upon his skyline. Thus it has clear limitations, even as a symbolic gesture, because it encourages an ostrich-like approach to the Swiss who are Muslim. In much of Europe, this is the norm anyway, the result of political correctness and political cowardice.
The ban, in other words, does too much and too little at once. Too much because it becomes a very visible and easily exploited symbol of supposed European intolerance. But it accomplishes too little because it seeks merely to hide from view the problems that gave rise to the fear of the minaret in the first place.