A Swiss Perspective on the Minaret Ban

A Swiss Perspective on the Minaret Ban

This is a guest post by Dominique Haller, a producer for the Here on Earth show at Wisconsin Public Radio. She is from Switzerland.

The vote banning the construction of minarets in Switzerland leaves that country with many questions. How did it come to this vote? What does the Swiss political system have to do with it? Why did no one – not the politicians, not the polls, not the media – foresee this result? And what are people in Switzerland really expressing with their vote?

The minaret vote was a national referendum or federal popular initiative, as it is called in Switzerland. Promoters of popular initiatives have 18 months to collect 100,000 signatures in order to get their proposal before the Swiss citizenry in a national vote. The main promoter of this initiative was the Swiss People’s Party (SVP/UDC). In trying to understand the ban, it is crucial to understand the history of this party’s success over the past decade and a half.

The rise of the SVP, the strongest Swiss party since 2003, goes back to the early 1990s, when the Swiss Parliament was dealing with questions of joining the European Economic Area and the European Union. At the same time, the war in the former Yugoslavia and the resulting wave of refugees and immigrants from the Balkans had a big impact on Swiss society. Under the ideological leadership of Christoph Blocher, then a national representative of the Canton of Zurich, the Swiss People’s Party developed a very provocative and populist style of campaigning in the 1990s. In a country where the political status quo was mostly based on consensus and dialogue, their new political style turned out to be quite effective. In a popular vote in 1992, the SVP succeeded in maintaining Switzerland’s autonomy from the European Union. This success gave the party a stronger voice in Switzerland’s media landscape. Later on in the decade, during the aftermath of the war in ex-Yugoslavia, the party developed a strain of xenophobic arguments against immigrants, painting foreigners as the enemy within, unwilling to adapt to Swiss society and eager to abuse Switzerland’s social democracy.

As a result of this rhetoric, the SVP has recently been quite successful in promoting popular initiatives with xenophobic content. In September 2006, the Swiss citizenry voted for stricter regulation of asylum rights for refugees and of job rights for immigrants from countries outside of Europe, openly using racist imagery in their campaign. During the elections of fall 2007, the Swiss People’s Party built its campaign almost exclusively around the persona of Christoph Blocher, heralding him as the only true representative of the people in opposition to the ruling political class and again using xenophobic and racist imagery to promote their causes. The image of the woman clad in a burka standing in front of a Swiss map torn up by minarets looking like missiles is only the latest example of the imagery used by the party.

Why has SVP’s rhetoric been so readily embraced by large parts of the Swiss population? It is quite popular to cite the fact that Switzerland’s population is over 20% immigrant, the highest percentage of all European countries with the exception of Luxembourg and Lichtenstein. But while it is true that, in relative terms, Switzerland takes in more refugees than any other European country, its immigration and naturalization laws are arguably also among the strictest, making it hard for immigrants to become Swiss citizens. Moreover, many Swiss feel that they are overrun by problems related to the integration of different immigrant populations. The politicians have had a hard time finding solutions to those challenges. The Swiss People’s Party is instrumentalizing a frustration that is felt in Swiss society regarding the perceived stagnation of integration efforts. Those frustrations are likely to be expressed in a popular vote, as happened on the vote to ban minaret construction.

So why was no one able to foresee the result of the vote? The NZZ, one of Switzerland’s most important newspapers, cites a disconnection between the political class and the intellectuals on the one hand and the broader population on the other. Politicians have not been able to respond to certain anxieties of the Swiss population in a constructive and effective way.

Reaction to the vote has left Switzerland grappling with legal challenges. In the Tages-Anzeiger, Federal Counselor Moritz Leuenberger suggests that popular initiatives with such problematic content should be nullified by the government before a possible vote. Two appeals against the minaret initiative have already been handed in at the Federal Court. And a group of Swiss intellectuals is planning a federal popular vote against the ban.

The German newspaper Die Zeit sees the Swiss vote in a larger European context. Many right-wing populists all over Europe were delighted at the outcome of the vote and are now asking for similar bans. In the French newspaper Le Monde, Nicolas Sarkozy attempts to defend the vote and asks for a national debate on French identity.

What do you think about the struggle for a new identity in Europe? Is Europe once again becoming a place of xenophobia and scapegoating? Or do you see opportunities in a debate about national identities?