Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

Swiss voters ban building of minarets

Posted by worriedlebanese on 29/11/2009

Islamophobia - Swiss style

More than 57% of voters and 22 out of 26 cantons voted in favour of a referendum proposal banning the building of minarets in Switzerland. The result came as a surprise. All surveys preceding the vote showed a majority of Swiss opposed to the ban. So how can one explain this gross disparity between the predicted and the actually result?

There are three explanations for this disparity:

              • The surveyors did a bad job. They relied on bad sampling… This could very possibly be the case. But how come all surveys gave similar results up to today? Could they all be wrong? And how come they were so wrong. We’re not talking about a 1 to 5 % error range, but more than 10%. That’s huge.
              • People who had declared  that they would vote against the ban didn’t turn up to the polling station at the same rate than those who voted in favour of the ban. If this is true, one still wonders why they were not motivated? Were they too comforted in their belief that the ban wouldn’t be approved? Did the parties that had declared their opposition to the ban (all except one it seems) fail to mobilise their constituencies? etc.
              • People who wanted to vote for the ban declared that they would vote against it. But why would they do such a thing? Could it be because they understood that their vote would be considered as islamophobic, and that such feelings are morally condemned because of their xenophobic character?

What next?

Instead of trying to understand why the Swiss voters decided to support the ban, I would like to quickly look into its significance. Most of the analysis I’ve encountered were geopolitical. Some analysts were worried about the possible international  outcomes of the ban: disinvestments, riots, targeting of Swiss embassies. It is quite obvious that the Danish Cartoon affair is still present in many minds. Some of the analysis I’ve come across were more interested in the social consequences it could have in Switzerland. How would this ban effect the relations between muslim and non-muslim individuals and groups in Helvetia?

Could this cow find the poster offensive?

My thoughts on this question have been drifting another way. The Swiss law doesn’t ban the building of Mosques. It bans the building of Minarets. In other words, it is targeting one essential element in Muslim religious architecture. Let’s not get all freudian about it, but it’s obviously a form of castration. They are banning the most defining feature of this religious building, what makes it recognizable as a Mosque. Interestingly enough, modern technology has removed much of a Minaret’s functional importance. Loudspeakers are more efficient and less costly a solution to call to prayer. And there is no legal provision banning these loudspeakers (except for the general nuisance provision that could be used by mayors). So basically, the Swiss banned a defining architectural element, what makes the building recognizable in the urban setting. So it has more to do with identity and visibility in the public space than anything else.

Did we say Freudian?

Such a ban is new to Europe (I wonder how the Council of Europe and its court will react to it). But similar provisions existed in the Middle East. The Ottomans for centuries had banned bell towers. They were only allowed during the second part the 19th century. In cities, there were even provisions stating that no Synagogue or Church must be prominent; And no distinctif part should be seen from the street (menorah, tables of the law, cross)…  The general idea behind the islamic provision and the swiss provision are the same. National religious minorities should remain invisible.


18 Responses to “Swiss voters ban building of minarets”

  1. Richard said

    The vote in Switzerland is fascinating in that it was essentially a ‘women’s issue’. The men basically followed.

    It is not the theory of equality of women in Islam, but the hard reality of 15 years of experience by girls and women of the social reality of appalling behaviour by Moslem men that has stripped away any illusions.

    Moslems came as refugees, were given asylum. Educated, housed.

    And the repayment….constant harassment and violence so much so that women feel intimidated.

    ‘Tatiana, a teacher who had previously voted for the left, was quoted in a newspaper as saying she would vote for the minaret ban as she could “no longer bear being mistreated and terrorised by boys who believe women are worthless”.

    Socialist politicians have been furious to see icons of the left joining what is regarded as an anti-immigrant campaign by the populist Swiss People’s party, the biggest group in parliament.

    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 has sent out 4,000 emails attacking Muslims who condone forced marriage, honour killings and beating women.’

    The voting intentions were not revealed to pollsters because of fear.

    There you have it, in a nutshell.

    Tell your readers.

    • Your post Richard sounds like Damage control to me, and I don’t believe it is very convincing.
      Here is how it is structure:

      Step 1: Ethno-Cultural Stigmatization
      I’m glad you say that it’s “not the theory of equality of women in Islam”, because one of the reason the Swiss government had problems joining the Council of Europe and adherent to the European Charter of European Rights was its blatant discrimination against women on may accounts (political rights were only granted to them in 1971),
      But what you say about “the hard reality of 15 years of experience by girls and women of the social reality of appalling behaviour by Moslem men that has stripped away any illusions”, is ethno-religious stigmatisation. Yes, some men behave badly toward women. Yes, it’s true that some of those men are muslim. But your statement makes it a group issue and links the behaviour to one specific group identified religiously. You’re on a slippery slope there.

      Step 2: Xenophobia: Cross-generational amalgamation + “Us” vs “You people”
      And your next statement shows that “Moslems came as refugees, were given asylum. Educated, housed. And the repayment….constant harassment and violence so much so that women feel intimidated”. First of all, you speak of refugees. This is a legal status. There’s another way of looking at it, and it’s economical. Switzerland, like most (if not all) Western European countries needed a cheap labour force to support its expanding economy after the 1960s, and that’s why it opened its door to immigration. The USA, Canada and Australia never hide the economical dimension of immigration, and foreign labour. Europe on the other hand systematically does.
      You make it sound as charity which is outrageous. One cannot even speak of charity regarding illegal immigration because it provides cheap labour and is globally beneficial to western countries. So one can even speak of exploitation in these cases.
      And then you go on with “repayment”, even though I’m sure you are quite aware that violence and harassement is not the most common behaviour of immigrants. But that doesn’t stop you from equating them to thugs. More over, you confuse two very distinct socio-cultural groups: those who immigrated from the 1960s to the 1980s (the level of criminality amongst them is incredibly low) and those who were born in Switzerland (second or third generation). If a lot of problems come from the latter group, I don’t think you can blame their parents or their original culture. They were brought up in Switzerland, within the Swiss Society (even if they were pushed to the margins) and in Swiss schools… if one has to play the blame game, it would be probably better to look into the political, the educational and the economical system. But instead of doing that, you conflate two distinct groups, stigmatise them and justify xenophobia.

      Funnily enough, I was part of a research group on interfaith dialogue that met in Switzerland a couple of years back, and our host was interested in approaching interethnic and interfaith issues by using the notion of hospitality.
      I remember objecting to this approach by giving an example on how it can imprison individuals in a category that is bound in an asymmetrical legal and political. Your argument fits perfectly in my worst case scenario of such an approach.

  2. PN said

    Thanks Richard.

    I got a ~ insight on this issue from several Swiss friends.

    In contrast to the mainstream perception, they were not surprised by the outcome.

  3. Only one good thing can come out of this: Muslim businessmen closing their Swiss bank accounts and depositing their money in Lebanese banks. =)

  4. lirun said

    i spent many weeks in switzerland recently and was overwhelmed by the demographic change.. i remember as a kid that place being largely.. umm.. swiss.. and now you walk around geneva at night down town and its intense.. even as a guy..

    i needed some cash for a taxi before an early flight and crossed a central square to get to an atm – now baring in mind that i live in israel and have a high sense of personal safety awareness i was still scared.. nothing i would have ever expected to find in switzerland..

  5. NB said

    Large chunks of the European electorate are obviously on the edge. They can’t take any more of this diversity. The political class and intellectuals should start coming back to their senses. Otherwise they may be made pay in double for everything: for the destruction of national communities, for making people feel foreigners in their home countries, for tremendous degradation of the quality of life, for destruction of welfare systems. The Tzunami is on the way. The Swiss vote is the last warning the politicians are given. The next backlash may be so bad that we will all start missing Griffin and Wilders

  6. lirun said

    i think thats a key point btw

    host communities feel so benevolent the second they open their doors but often fail to take end to end responsibility for the ingestion of foreign communities leaving them to fend for themselves without adequate assimilation techniques..

    its not easy but its so important.. bringing in fugees is certainly nothing less than a partnership..

  7. NB said

    Some immigrations are simply unintegratable.They should have never been allowed in the first place.

  8. This discussion is really turning into a contest between arguments that can be at best labelled “extreme right”. It reminds me of a Morrissey song, “National Front Disco” but “National Front Polyphonic Orchestra” seems a better title with the introduction of Geert Wilders (Party for Freedom) and Nick Griffin (British National Party) by NB.

    I’ve learnt from our previous discussion NB that arguing with you is useless. So I won’t do it.
    But I would like to throw in a couple of background information on the arguments you so lightly used for those readers who might be interested.

    Arguments that just don’t smell right
    The arguments you used in support of Richard’s are those made by the National Front, the British National Party, the Front National in France, the Vlaams Belang in Belgium, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands… and a whole bunch of parties that are labelled as extreme right. They are blatantly xenophobic. They distinguish between “natives” and “non-natives”. and one could add that they are proudly islamophobic.
    All these parties share these arguments
    – “some groups cannot be integrated (“unintegratable” as NB put it),
    – “they make people feel foreigners in their home countries”,
    – they are responsible for the “tremendous degradation of the quality of life”, and
    – they are “destroying the welfare system” that they profit from

    Another scent: here are my arguments

    Is native about birth or genealogy?
    If you look at the structure of the argument, it opposes natives and foreigners regardless if the latter group is actually composed of people born in the “host” country and are actually nationals. Instead of reverting to a racial argument that was common in the 1930s, they revert to a “cultural” element that was actually quite prevalent in the 19th century and the early 20th century. You should look at the French parliamentary debates over the integration of Jewish immigrants in the 19th century (some arguments were actually supported by French Jews by the way, in the same way some French Muslims today support similar ideas against muslim immigrants). And the debate over Italian immigration in the early 20th century are equally quite telling. Same arguments by similar parties.

    Don’t cultural systems interact and evolve?
    It also locks people in “cultural systems” that are not only distinct but impermeable to change and interaction. You have the “natives” with their ways (even if these ways have changed considerably during the past century with urbanisation, the rise of the middle class, secularisation…) and the “foreigners” with their own ways (even if they are born in a different country from their parents, have gone to a different schooling system, are interacting with a different society, do not know the language of their ancestors, are quite secularised).

    What about other factors? Economy, Integration Policy, Delinquency…
    These arguments also ignore all factors that might unsettle their argument. Many European cities underwent two decades ago something that happened in America almost half a century earlier: impoverishment of the city centers and the extension of suburban middle class life. To this, one can add the social and spatial segregation that was engineered in the 1960s to absorb this much needed immigration. To this one can add the deindustrialisation of Western Europe and its move to a service economy that has struck the so called “foreign” group harder than the “native” group.

    But obviously, all this is of little importance when there’s fear and hate.
    I agree with what you said Lirun in comment #6, there is a problem and it is shared. Only the arguments that have been used over here are not part of the solution, but part of the problem.

    • Marian said

      The reason why the named parties have success is that they speak for what many people approve of.

      Distinguishing between “natives” and “non-natives”, and aversion against mixing of the local culture with something utterly foreign is the natural state of things. Not just in Europe, but everywhere in the world. Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Pushtun, Zulu or American Indian tribes are rather proud of their heritage and definitely see themselves as an ethnocultural unit. No wonder that Europeans do the same.

      The view of the “celebrate diversity” line, which you seem to embrace, is not common in the street-level population, but is quite spread in some intellectual and political circles.

      The problem is that promoters of this view see them as progressive and righteous, the real advanced humans, and therefore feel OK to force this view on their population, either ignoring dissenters, or labeling them with all the spectrum from “bigot”, “xenophobe”, “islamophobe”, “racist” etc. At worst, dissenters are prosecuted under various hate speech laws, which is indeed a disaster on a continent that used to defend freedom of speech from totalitarian states for several decades. It also produces “martyrs” for the opponents, which rather helps their cause than anything else.

      In this picture, it perfectly logical for the nativist parties (which, by the way, form quite a diverse group themselves – just examine their attitudes to, say, Israel) to gain serious popularity, because they are the only ones willing to actually take this resentment seriously, instead of scolding their own voters as stupid prejudiced rednecks, and their politicians are sometimes prosecuted just for saying something that a large part of population views as uncomfortable truth.

      Rationality is needed at this point, because if sufficiently large fragments of population lose trust in the premise that the democratic system takes care of their grievances, they may turn to even more extremist views.

      I, personally, would suggest dropping all the “bigot-xenophobe-blatant evil” vocabulary and starting to acknowledge that, for some people, preservation of their culture and general character of the country is an important motivation. It may not be rational, but humans are not computers. Religious faith is not rational either, but forcibly suppressing it would be evidently evil and extremely politically incompetent. So why not take the insistence of Dutch, Swiss etc. on preservation of their national identities (as perceived by them) as a thing similar to their faith, and respect it accordingly?

      • Hey Marian
        thanks for your comment
        I never said fear and hate were European attributes. I’m sure that Xenophobia is equally shared by all nations throughout the world. What I’m simply trying to say is that we should call things by their name. The swiss vote is blatantly islamophobic. The whole debate surrounding the vote was islamophobic and the outcome of the vote is felt by many as being islamophobic.

        But I do agree with you that the attitude of “moderate” or mainstream politicians is not very productive: “scolding their own voters”, considering them “stupid prejudiced rednecks”, and prosecuting politicians “just for saying something that a large part of population views as uncomfortable truth” is problematic. I personally am against “hate speech legislation” (I don’t find it productive). But removing it doesn’t mean accepting hate speech, but ringing the bell when it is pronounced and fighting the ideas that it promotes through debate, education, outreach programs…
        As you rightly put it, issues that I believe are xenophobic evolve, and they can become more extremist. This is exactly what I’m afraid of. With the swiss vote, islamophobia has made a large step in the public discourse and opened up new areas in which it could progress. That’s what I’m afraid of.

        Dreadful things have been done in the 20th century in the name of “preserving one’s national culture” and “the general character of a country”. And I’m not only alluding to Nazi Germany, but also to many post-colonial governments throughout the third world. I don’t think such arguments should be taken so lightly.

  9. NB said

    I’ve learnt from our previous discussion NB that arguing with you is useless. So I won’t do it.
    But I would like to throw in a couple of background information on the arguments you so lightly used for those readers who might be interested.

    Well, it’s useless because as like your many countrymen, you are extremely messed up in your thinking. In fact, it’s not even thinking so much as the usual marriage of the Arab self righteousness to the extreme Western political correctness. Your so called arguing is mostly about trying to classify people under certain categories and attaching labels to them, xenophobes, extreme right wing. And then you try to instruct people on what they should or should not be thinking. It’s a kind of “you can’t think this way because I was taught in school that it’s not nice to think so”.

    At the factual level you are reducing everything to particularities until no forest can be seen behind the trees and everything becomes as foggy and muddled as your own thinking. The problem however will not go away just because its mere presence is offending your sectarian sensitivities. The fundamental truth remains that the Muslim/Arab world is a tremendous failure and its diasporas in Europe reflect this general failure in particular countries. For some reasons, and they may be miryad these people mostly either can’t or don’t want to integrate and Europe would do wisely to put a total stop to this hopeless and dangerous immigration. Let alone the world still has in abundance Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians and others who usually integrate within two if not one generation. The failure of the Arab and the larger Muslim worlds should be confined within their borders and this should be the guiding principle of Western immigration policies.

  10. lsr said

    NB – this one is for you –

    (if I had to make a guess, I would say that you seem like someone who would get both the humor and the message.)

    WL – great post and amazing analysis – thank you.

  11. NB said


    Favor for favor. Enjoy

  12. I am not sure that the initial fear about an Arab outrage against the Swiss ban on building minarets will materialize. As you have rightly pointed out and most of the commentators missed the Swiss ban , as distasteful as it might be, did not touch directly on the freedom of religion or the right to build mosques and schools.
    The Arab reaction will have to be mute because in at least two of the leading Arab countries the restrictions on religious expression are even greater. In Saudi Arabia the construction of churches or any other non Moslem houses of worship is forbidden. In Egypt the Coptic Church still requires a very high level approval, it might be even a presidential approval, even to do simple maintenance work.
    Two wrongs do not make a right but I hope that many in Arab officialdom have noticed that you cannot demand a particular behaviour from others if you do not yourself behave accordingly. Amr Moussas’ brief statement on this issue sounded very much like the kettle calling the pot black.

  13. NB said

    As you have rightly pointed out and most of the commentators missed the Swiss ban , as distasteful as it might be, did not touch directly on the freedom of religion or the right to build mosques and schools.

    The pattern of reaction in the Muslim/Arab world until now suggests that it is not driven by the issues of freedom and rights as much as symbolism. In terms of all incidents until now the worst was supposed to be the French ban on headscarves since it directly interferes with the way most religious Muslim women practice their religion. However, it produced only muted reaction. Nothing to compare with the reaction to the cartoons or to that teddy bear in Sudan. This suggests that even if Wilders bans all Korans in Holland, it will not be that bad as burning even one of them in public. Putting limits on the practice of Islam in a European country is a pretty safe business as long as one is careful when choosing names for his child’s teddy bear.

    And most commenters missed nothing about the Swiss ban. Comments by Richard and Lirun were purely informational comments. Richard’s commment was a summary of articles published on the issue in some media outlets such as this one. Neither I am particularly excited about banning headscarves or minarets. However, it’s obvious that what we are getting in Europe is a direct result of the immigration policies and the low, if not atrocious, quality of the immigration these policies have brought to Europe from the Middle East and elsewhere. Forget about Swiss, there was always this streak about Switzerland, it’s not surprising. But Holland used to be one of the most liberal and tolerant European countries and it probably still is. The fact that the most popular party in the country is now campaigning for banning the Koran itself is simply mind boggling.

  14. lirun said

    WL – u raise some interesting points which is something i have been alluding to in some of my posts.. one of the battles emerging here is that of identity..

    its like when the netherlands got sick and tired of internal criticism of the dutch way of life by immigrants and the immigration department produced the famous dutch welcome video http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11842116/

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