The following is from Searchlight.
Fear and loathing grips Europe
Author: Nick Lowles
Towards the end of last year the people of Switzerland voted to ban the building of minarets in their country. It was, we were told by the referendum organizers, an attempt to stop the growing influence of Islam in Swiss society.
Politicians and commentators at home and abroad queued up to denounce the move. Even the Vatican condemned it as a “blow to freedom of religion”. But despite the widespread criticism from political and religious leaders the referendum was widely welcomed by large swathes of Europeans and it reflects a growing unease and increasingly open hostility towards the Muslim communities.
The origins of the referendum lie in 2005, when an Islamic Cultural Association sought permission to build a 6m minaret on its community centre. Planning permission was initially refused amid local opposition, but the decision was eventually overturned by the government’s Building and Justice Department, whose decision in turn was rubber stamped by Federal Supreme Court. Four years after the original plans were submitted the minaret was finally built.
The Swiss right was furious and during 2006 and 2008 the Swiss People’s Party and the Federal Democratic Union launched cam-paigns in several regions to ban minarets. This came to nothing after the bans were deemed unconstitutional and so void. Recognising they had to change the law, the two parties started a federal popular initiative to amend article 72 of the Constitution to ban minarets. Over the next 18 months they collected the necessary 100,000 signatures for a referendum.
Once again, a Swiss vote was overshadowed by an inflammatory poster designed to whip up fears and reinforce racial and religious stereotypes. Before the general election in 2007 the controversial poster depicted one black sheep being kicked out by three white sheep with the slogan “For more security”. This time the supporters of the minaret ban produced a poster displaying a black-veiled Muslim woman and a forest of missile-like minarets imposed on the pure red and white of the Swiss flag.
Despite opposition from the government 57% of voters backed the ban, with majorities in 22 of the country’s 26 regions.
Condemnation of the result was swift and predictable. Political and religious leaders queued up to express their shock, as did, with huge embarrassment, the federal government.
Conversely, there was predictable joy from right-wing political parties across Europe. Marine Le Pen, the deputy leader of France’s far-right National Front, praised the outcome and said France should now hold a wider referendum on multiculturalism.
“The elites should stop denying the hopes and fears of European peoples who, without opposing religious freedom, reject ostentatious symbols forced on them by politico-religious Muslim groups, often verging on provocation,” Agence France Presse quoted her saying.
In Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands, anti-immigrant movements called on their own governments to debate similar measures. “What can be done in Switzerland can be done here,” said Geert Wilders, the leader of the Freedom Party in the Netherlands. Meanwhile Roberto Calderoli, a member of Italy’s Northern League, which is part of the country’s ruling coalition, said: “Switzerland is sending us a clear signal: yes to bell towers, no to minarets”.
There was also support from the Society of St Puis X, an ultra-Orthodox Catholic sect that includes Bishop Williamson, the British bishop who has denied the Holocaust, which has its base in Switzerland. The Society denounced the Catholic Church, at home and in the Vatican, for being “either stupid or naive”.
However, after a day or two there were some rumblings of dissent from some unexpected quarters. A week after the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner denounced the Swiss decision, saying he was shocked and scandalised and calling for the ban to be reversed, President Nicolas Sarkozy took a different line. Writing in Le Monde the French President voiced sympathy for the Swiss vote, calling on religious practitioners to avoid “ostentation” and “provocation” for fear of upsetting others.
Claiming to be surprised by the widespread criticism of the outcome of the referendum, Sarkozy said that there was need for a debate on national identity in France.
“How can you not be amazed at the reaction that this decision has produced in certain media and political circles in our own country,” Sarkozy wrote in Le Monde. “Instead of condemning the Swiss out of hand, we should try to understand what they meant to express and what so many people in Europe feel, including people in France.”
Sarkozy called for discretion from France’s six million Muslims, the biggest Muslim community in Europe, in their religious observance, while pledging to fight all discrimination.
“Christians, Jews, Muslims, all believers regardless of their faith must refrain from ostentation and provocation and … practise their religion in humble discretion.” Muslims would need to find a way of integrating in France “without conflicting with our social and civic pact”, while moderate Islam would fail if Muslims sought to challenge the country’s republican value system or Christian heritage.
Unfortunately, Sarkozy’s views, like the original referendum objective, have been welcomed by many people across the continent. Newspaper opinion polls in Spain, France and Germany showed large majorities supporting a ban on minarets in their respective countries. In France, a more official survey found 46% of people opposed minarets and 41% opposed any new mosques.
Obviously the Swiss vote was about far more than minarets. Indeed, there are only four minarets in Switzerland and two of those are on industrial estates well away from residential areas. Many of the initial media reports following the vote looked at Swiss life and tried to understand what motivated Swiss voters. However, it was only after Sarkozy’s intervention that the real significance of the vote, which is far wider than only a Swiss issue, began to be seriously considered as an international problem.
The referendum result reflected a growing hostility to Muslims across Europe.
In Germany, Wolfgang Bosbach, the spokesman on domestic security for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s con-servative Christian Democrats, said the vote expressed a fear of Islamisation that also exists in Germany. “One has to take this concern seriously,” Bosbach told the Berliner Zeitung.
Germany’s largest selling newspaper, Bild, said Germans would probably vote the same way if they were allowed a referendum on the issue. “The minaret is not just the symbol of a religion but of a totally different culture,” the paper claimed. “Large parts of the Islamic world do not share our basic European values: the legacy of the Enlightenment, the equality of man and woman, the separation of church and state, a justice system independent of the Bible or the Koran and the refusal to impose one’s own beliefs on others with ‘fire and the sword’. Another factor is likely to have influenced the Swiss vote: Nowhere is life made harder for Christians than in Islamic countries. Those who are intolerant themselves cannot expect unlimited tolerance from others.”
To my knowledge there has been no research into whether British people would support a similar ban on minarets. I would like to think that we would be different from the Swiss but I’m not really sure.
In a large YouGov survey of 32,000 voters during last summer’s European elections 44% of Britons agreed with the statement: “Even in its milder forms, Islam is a serious danger to western civilisation”. Another 18% offered no opinion and only 32% disagreed.
When asked which groups benefit from unfair discrimination, 39% of respondents cited Muslims with only 21% believing that Muslims suffer from unfair discrimination.
It is clear that across Europe fear of and hostility towards Muslims is growing. Islamophobic parties are polling well at the ballot box and the media, such as the Daily Express and Daily Star in the UK, are providing a daily diet of Islamophobia.
However, it would be wrong simply to denounce the Swiss voters because if we do then we are likely to be repeating ourselves over another country in the not too distant future.
Racism and Islamophobia are on the rise across Europe and likely to grow over the next few years. War, terrorism and economic decline are all toxic ingredients for division and scapegoating. There is also a growing sense of unease among many people about where their respective countries are going and their place within them. As power shifts away from Europe towards Asia this growing unease and lose of identity could manifest itself in ever greater resentment. As hostility grows, so conversely Islamic fundamentalists will gain recruits and so the cycle will spiral downwards.
The Swiss expressed their views on religion and race and there is absolutely no reason to believe that they would not be replicated in several other European countries given a chance – including Britain. Yes, condemn the Swiss vote but we need to deal with the issues that led to it.
© Searchlight Magazine 2010