Swiss intolerance


The result of a referendum held in Switzerland last week, which imposed a ban on construction of minarets on mosques, was as unexpected as it was offensive to the secular and tolerant traditions of the country. Switzerland is known for its pacifism, neutrality and advocacy of human rights causes and has been ahead of most other countries in promoting positive state policies in these areas. Social attitudes in the country have also been tolerant and non-confrontational.

Therefore the ban has shocked everybody, though it will not have more than symbolic value now. There are only four minarets in the country and the mosques number only about 165. The Muslim population in the country also is not large. They are only four lakh among 7.6 million. The minarets and the mosques are almost invisible, as is the Muslim presence in society. And yet the vote was decisive with 57  per cent of the people and 22 of the 26 cantons voting for the ban.

The Muslims in Switzerland are mostly from the Balkan countries and from Turkey. The vote is said to be more anti-Turkish and, therefore, based on nationalistic considerations, and not anti-Muslim. Another argument is that the anti-minaret campaign, initiated by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, had a more effective strategy which appealed to the people. Yet another argument is that a provocative motion at the UN by Libya for dismemberment of Switzerland had a role in the vote. But these arguments are weak and the fact is that the vote has embarrassed many and given a boost to the right-wing intolerant sections all over Europe. It has been condemned by the mainstream political and government leadership of the continent, the UN Human Rights Commission, the Vatican and Islamic countries and organisations. Switzerland may also face penal action in European fora.

The referendum decision can be reversed by the Swiss supreme court or the European Court of Human Rights. But the vote will blot Switzerland’s image and credentials. There is another campaign in the country now to limit the entry of skilled migrants from other countries. This too is part of the ultra-nationalistic agenda of the rightwing. The open and liberal ethos of the country is unfortunately under stress.

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