Last Sunday, in a referendum, the Swiss decided by a majority in excess of 57 percent of voters to ban construction of minarets, according to the definitive results of the balloting.
To general surprise, only four cantons out of the 26 in the confederation rejected the proposal backed by the Democratic Union of the Center (UDC), the right-wing populist party, and the small Christian right-wing party, the UDF.
This vote will entail modification of Article 72 of the Swiss Constitution, which governs the relations between the state and religions. The ban on minaret construction will be presented as a measure “to maintain peace among members of diverse religious communities.”
According to the UDC regarding the initiative for the referendum, minarets are the “visible symbol of a political-religious power claim that challenges fundamental rights.” One of the posters the UDC used in the electoral campaign aroused intense controversy. It represents a woman in a black burqa, surrounded by minarets that pierce through the Swiss flag.
For Muslims, ‘A Punch in the Face’
The Swiss government had firmly opposed the initiative. Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf emphasized that the ban on minarets would be contrary to freedom of religion and discriminatory.
The Green Party will study the possibility of referring the matter to the European Human Rights Court. “Swiss Muslims have not been slapped, but punched right in the face,” deems the Greens’ national president Ueli Leuenberger. That’s the result of “extremely expert propaganda that played on people’s prejudices.”
About 400,000 Muslims live in Switzerland out of a total population of approximately 7.6 million inhabitants, according to an estimate by the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland (FOIS), based on the last population census, effected in 2000. Specifically, the Muslim population from the former Yugoslavia has grown to represent more than half (56.4 percent) of the Muslim population in the country.
At present, there are four minarets in Switzerland: one each in Geneva, Zurich, Wangen bei Olten (in the Soleure canton) and Winterthour (in the Zurich canton). None of them serves for the call to prayer.
Groggy from the people’s “coup d’état” which harshly repudiated its majority, the political world woke up yesterday with a minaret in its throat, while the Swiss choice continues to arouse incomprehension and disapproval abroad.
Since Sunday, the defeated federal counselors (but where is the president?) have been attempting to limit the damage by minimizing the referendum’s impact and its causes. Madame Widmer-Schlumpf repeated yesterday in Brussels that this result must not be interpreted as an anti-Muslim attack. Rhetorical contortions to defend national interests, but denial! Who wrote in the brochure addressed to citizens that “the ban on minarets would be a sign of rejection for the Muslims who live in our country”? The Federal Council itself. Who added that the initiative is “contrary to our Constitution and contravenes international law”? The Federal Council.
So the government played with fire, underestimated the hotbed of protest, and lost. The constitutionality of an initiative is not the first concern of citizens infuriated by the Libyan affair and stubbornly opposed to the visible, symbolic and often imaginary aspects of Islam. Since the Schwarzenbach initiatives, the rejection of the Italians, then the Africans and the ex-Yugoslavs, there’s a consistency in the identity politics reflex that appears this time to counter the religious connection that unites disparate communities.
The presidents of the Federal Chambers admitted it yesterday: the political world has neglected questions of integration and religion. It did not want to see and resolve the eruption into public space (the only space involved) of problems that clash with people’s sensibilities: wearing of the veil, certificates of exemption from the swimming pool or from school camps…. “We tolerate the intolerable so as not to be accused of intolerance,” deplored Elisabeth Badinter. The paradoxical result of this political laissez-faire: now the whole country wears an image of narrowness and sectarianism like a cross.
Direct democracy was envisaged as a popular counterweight to the powers delegated to elected officials and the government. There was never any question of making it a garbage can for emotion.
What means will Swiss democracy now endow itself with to prevent that its great virtue – political piloting through frequent consultations with its citizens – not be led astray by the excitation of those primitive passions that reside in individuals?
The question is a very old one. The founders were aware of it from the outset. They repeatedly expressed the risks that would exist, for example, in entrusting the election of the Federal Council to the not-always-so-well-inspired moods of “public opinion.” In all democratic political systems, the obsessive fear of wise men, experts, and sages, has always been excess through demagoguery. In Switzerland this Sunday, it was demonstrated that the wise men, experts, and sages have lost control and the demagogues have won. Their immediate objective, the minarets, was low-hanging fruit in that they were symbolic and gratuitous from a material perspective: ideal for suppressing the stench.
Direct democracy was envisaged as a popular counterweight to the powers delegated to elected officials and the government. There was never any question of making it a garbage can for emotions which the first comer, armed with a bit of money, a bit of talent, or a bit of cunning may call for the “people” to let loose.
In its original political conception, direct democracy is the exercise of the right to express disagreement with a definite and precise plan or to advance a change. When that exercise carelessly addresses social questions, such as the initiative on life imprisonment for sex offenders, or religious identity, as with the minarets, it arouses dangerous passions that no campaign of reason or logic is able to bring under control. These passions of society deserve to stay within society, distanced as far as possible from the political field.
As long as the populists’ sanctification of the people hasn’t entirely paralyzed our sages, they have the institutional means to contain blunders. They only need the courage to do so.
Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher