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Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 01:24 | SYDNEY
Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 01:24 | SYDNEY

A mountain out of a minaret

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2 December 2009 15:28

The Swiss referendum that banned the construction of minarets will inevitably be portrayed as a further example of the European backlash against Muslim migration, following on from France's 2004 banning of Muslim headscarves from state schools.

But while the issue of European concern at (real or perceived) large-scale Muslim migration is certainly an issue, the French and Swiss cases are qualitatively different and one should be careful in linking the two.

The French case involved the banning of overtly religious symbols (of all faiths) from state schools — a reaffirmation, according to the Government, that the secular French republic should have an absolute separation of church and state. This was seen by some as an attack on Muslims, but what got no press was the fact that private religious schools (be they Christian, Muslim or any other faith) were still free to display their religious symbols. 
 
The Swiss, unburdened with a colonial history in Muslim lands and the attendant sense of obligation, are much more fearful of 'the other'. The fact that the referendum was called for by the political far right and was passed by a handsome majority against most predictions (with all but four of 23 cantons supporting the ban) is a much more blunt message to Muslims.

The Swiss right will argue that they didn't restrict religious freedom because they didn't vote to ban mosques, only the minarets which are a visible symbol of Islam but not a religious prerequisite. Still, the campaign posters in favour of the ban (above) left no one in doubt as to what the target was. The reaction to the Swiss decision has been predictably robust within the Muslim world, but also elsewhere in Europe.

While the peculiar Swiss voting system that allows this form of popular democracy means this will not be a precursor for similar referenda elsewhere in Europe, it has raised two interesting questions. Firstly, opinion polls did not reflect voter actions on the day, so the level of enmity in broader European society towards Muslim immigration is likely to be greater than current research shows.

Secondly, the Swiss right may have shown other European parties of the right a way of attracting 'respectable' voters in the future — restrict Islam's public face at the same time as denying any intent to restrict freedom of worship. 

All politics is local and not too much should be read into the Swiss referendum, but in a few years time I would not be surprised to see political scientists and sociologists arguing that this result had longer-term ramifications for European states' relations with their Muslim populations.

Photo by Flickr user rytc, used under a Creative Commons license.

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