Swiss minarets: is EU following Arabs down path of self-pity and xenophobia?

Swiss minarets: is EU following Arabs down path of self-pity and xenophobia?


One of only four minarets in Switzerland, on a Muslim centre in Wangen bei Olten. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Reading about the Swiss electorate’s unexpected vote to ban the building of minarets, I thought not just of Nick Griffin and how pleased he must be this morning (“Switzerland shows the way, comrades”), but of Emma Thompson, equally daft in her own way.

You remember Thompson’s contribution to inter-communal harmony? In Exeter, where her adopted Rwandan son, Tindyebwa Agaba, suffered some harassment as a student, she complained that Comrade Nick would love the place.

“What can we do to change the whiteness of Devon and Cornwall? How can we expand our university?” the lovable London luvvie asked.

Speaking as a Cornish expatriate, I can tell you that won’t have gone down well among us west country Whites, who are fed up with self-important Lun’nuners trousering all the best houses and talking too loudly in the pub.

Sunday’s 57% majority on a turnout of 53% — low by Swiss referendum standards – confirms the impression that the 27 cantons are the Devon and Cornwall of western Europe.

Richer, of course, and with better ski-slopes – but largely white and a bit fearful about the unfamiliar.

It’s usually the way – fuelled by linguistic passion, Welsh Wales is even worse in my experience, Norfolk (all those “Turnip Taliban”) a bit dodgy and unattractively parochial.

But smug metropolitan types should remember that occupants of the bus into work do not all look like those on the number 19 from Islington. Tolerance is the key.

So will the rest of Europe follow suit, as Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born Arab intellectual (grandpa founded the Muslim Brotherhood, so dad was exiled by Nasser), suggests might happen in a generally sensible article in today’s Guardian? I don’t think so.

Ramadan argues that every European country has symbolic targets of Islamophobia – minarets in Switzerland, cartoons in Denmark, headscarves in France – through which they express what he calls “their identity crisis”.

Our symbolic flashpoint, he says, is violence (Islamist violence, I presume?); in the Netherlands it’s homosexuality (theirs or ours?), and so on.

What Ramadan illustrates is that every country’s culture and history is nuanced in different ways. East and south of Germany, they get very exercised by Turks, not least because Turkey occupied their countries for centuries and last laid siege to Vienna in 1683 – driven back on 9/11 in 1683 by the way, for what that symbol is worth.

Safe in England, Good Queen Bess did a bit of business with Ottoman Turks (who also conquered the Arab empires, incidentally) on the familiar grounds that her Catholic enemies’ Ottoman enemies might usefully be her friends. It’s what happens.

In France, Arabs are a more sensitive focus of fear and hostility, the legacy of north African empire; in Spain it’s Morocco, both countries having conquered each other down the long lanes of history.

Those bombs on the Madrid trains, far worse than 7/7, were Moroccan bombs, just as ours were Bradford Pakistani bombs, the legacy of empire too.

Where Ramadan is surely right is to urge Swiss Muslims to engage with Swiss society and politics more positively, rather than to seek invisibility to avoid trouble – as overseas Chinese communities often do too, incidentally.

Where he is wrong is in the sweeping generalisation he proceeds to make, namely that it is the same everywhere. “The political parties in Europe, as in Switzerland, have become cowed and shy from any courageous policies towards cultural and religious pluralism.”

Oh, come off it. Each country’s response is different here, too. The French extol republican egalite – the legacy of 1789 – and hide behind the awkward fact that positive discrimination is sometimes needed to break a roadblock.

The same tack is used to ban “religious symbols” – headscarves – in school, a subject on which I got agitated when some fool of an Italian judge backed a Finnish-born mum’s complaint about crucifixes in schools.

In Britain, I’d say that after a slow start both the host community – that’s us overweight, northern European white folk raised in the Christian tradition – and assorted incomers have both done pretty well at mingling, certainly by EU and US standards, so foreign colleagues keep reminding me.

Bishops, businessmen, peers and MPs, sports and entertainment stars – Lenny Henry just got a gong for playing Othello, for heaven’s sake – councillors, we can all see visible proof of integration that must often look very odd in near-white Exeter. The incomers seem so comfortable that some behave as badly as the rest of us.

Not everyone’s happy, of course. I leave the reconciliation of disaffected British Pakistanis to former Oxford Professor Ramadan, who is reformist in outlook though he gets visa trouble.

As for disaffected natives, in a speech today John Denham, the communities secretary (who dreams up these titles?), is expected to say: “The government’s commitment to tackle racism and race inequality remains total. But a real commitment to challenging inequality and disadvantage also means tackling the problems faced by white, working-class young people.”

Good point, minister, always worth making. Threatened identity often makes people, at all levels of society, insecure and angry.

What makes the current plight of insecure Europeans and Arabs strikingly interesting, those Swiss voters included, is that they are both grappling with a sense of marginalisation in a fast-changing world where Asia is becoming more important for the first time in centuries.

Eugene Rogan’s new book, The Arabs: a History (Allen Lane, £25), charts their sad decline since the Ottomans – definitely not Arabs – conquered the Egyptian-based Mamluk empire of Cairo in 1516 and proceeded to take on the Europeans, a battle they eventually lost.

Despite a surge of hope for secular Arab nationalism under Nasser in the 1950s they have never since escaped foreign domination – the cold war did for Nasser – nor a sense of victimhood that seems quite to forget centuries of conquest, glory and scientific achievement for which we are all still indebted.

For some reason, the Chinese don’t have this psychological burden round their necks, haven’t lapsed into self-pity or the reactionary fantasy that they can recreate the medieval caliphate which the Mongul invaders nobbled when they destroyed Baghdad in 1258.

Are the Europeans, now taking a back seat in history, seatbelts fastened, Lady Ashton driving very slowly at the wheel, set to follow the Arabs down that path towards self-pity and fearsomeness, backwardness and xenophobia?

That’s the question that Switzerland’s vote might usefully provoke.

PS: On the day the SNP launches its campaign for an independence referendum, it’s also not a great advert for populist democracy.

The Swiss establishment told the world the rightwing campaign against minarets would fail. Some voters probably stayed at home as a result of that prediction. They lost.

Switzerland’s bankers woke up to avoidable problems they could well do without. A rare boost for the embattled City of London, which may be raising an alcohol-free glass?