Switzerland’s popular democracy with the right to call referenda looked far less attractive today as it descended into racism and intolerance. The country voted to ban the construction of new minarets, in a surprise result certain to embarrass the neutral government and which the justice minister said could affect Swiss exports and tourism. The Swiss news agency ATS and other media said about 57.5 percent of voters and all but four of the 26 cantons approved the proposal in the nationwide referendum, which was backed by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP).
The government and parliament had rejected the initiative as violating the Swiss constitution, freedom of religion and the country’s cherished tradition of tolerance. The government had said a ban could “serve the interests of extremist circles”. “Muslims in Switzerland are able to practise their religion alone or in community with others and live according to their beliefs just as before,” it said in a statement. Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said the outcome of the vote reflected a fear of Islamic fundamentalism, but the ban was “not a feasible means of countering extremist tendencies”.
A group of politicians from the SVP, the country’s biggest party, and the conservative Federal Democratic Union gathered enough signatures to force the referendum on the initiative. Its campaign poster showed the Swiss flag covered in missile-like minarets and the portrait of a woman covered with a black chador and veil associated with strict Islam.
This is not the SVP’s first run at a deliberately racist campaign. In 2007 it launched a poster campaign depicting three white sheep standing on the Swiss flag, with one craftily kicking away a black sheep, which was plastered on to billboards, into newspapers and posted to every home in a direct mailshot. The poster was, according to the United Nations, the sinister symbol of the rise of a new racism and xenophobia in a country where one in four, like the black sheep in the poster, are now foreign immigrants to this peaceful, prosperous and stable economy with low unemployment and a per capita GDP larger than that of other Western economies.
This latest referendum is a disgrace in a state which found no problem in being bankers to the Nazis and handling stolen goods from around the world generally. Let’s go the whole hog and bar steeples, roadside shrines, crosses on the skyline and Stars of David on Synagogue windows? Still, Switzerland’s Cantons were the result of vicious sectarian warfare? This should serve as a warning that the world is still building barriers and stigmatising people based on race and religion. It is surely the mark of a mature and confident society that it welcomes diversity and the contribution of different cultures to enriching society for everybody? It seems the cuckoos in Switzerland are not just in the clocks.