Swiss referendum reveals ugly racism

December 5, 2009

The Swiss, known for cheese, Alps, watches, chocolate, and secret bank accounts, at least two of which are full of holes, have now added a sixth important product: intolerance.

In a vote on whether to ban minarets (tall spires built as part of Muslim mosques), 57.5% of Switzerland's 8 million people voted to back the ban.

As nearly everyone agreed, the minarets themselves were not so important. The 400,000 Muslims living in Switzerland have only four minarets. Their architecture disturbs almost no one, nor do muezzins call loudly over the rooftops five times a day.

The minarets are symbols. While few who voted for the ban said so openly, what many thought was: "There are too many damned furriners in our Christian republic anyway. We can't even understand their foreign lingo. Keep 'em out!"

Ironically, Switzerland has four official languages to begin with. That should breed tolerance, especially since German-speaking Swiss, and it is they who voted most frequently against the minarets, have a folksy dialect that sounds rather quaint to people in Germany. But is so difficult to understand that Swiss films shown there require subtitles.

Variety in cultures is a good thing, but it involves tolerance toward other people's cultures.

Christianity is no constitutional requirement in Switzerland; religious freedom is supposed to be the rule. But it was Swiss authorities, equally determined to keep their country Christian, who turned away Jewish refugees from neighboring Germany during the Hitler years — many, or most, of whom died.

This shameful episode makes the decision by more than half Swiss voters especially disturbing, and not only because it was a victory for the far-right Swiss People's Party.

Like cheese and watches, such intolerance promises to be an export product. And far too many in other countries are all too willing to buy this poison.

Among those rejoicing were supporters of right-wing Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. A leader of Berlusconi's party, Lega Nord, said: "Flying high above a Europe now almost fully Islamised is the flag of courageous Switzerland, which wishes to remain Christian."

The daughter of French racist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who now leads his National Front party, expressed her warm satisfaction. Geert Wilders, the rabid Dutch filmmaker building a party based on Islamophobia, said: "We need a referendum like that in the Netherlands!"

In Austria, England, Spain, and elsewhere fanatic nationalists, racists and neo-fascists welcomed this smoke signal from the Alps. They are the extremists, of course, rarely with anything like majorities.

But their numbers are often tending upward.

Many German politicians were undoubtedly horrified. Others, thinking of German history or counting the growing numbers of Muslim voters in urban centers, were careful and quiet. Few were exuberant.

But some, while not explicitly approving the referendum results, betrayed their inner thoughts. Wolfgang Bosbach, a key leader of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, said Swiss voters' "worries must be taken seriously!"

He was quickly slapped down, but his message got through even the thickest shaven skulls.

Islamophobia is not unknown in Germany. In one borough of Berlin, enraged demonstrations, egged on by a Christian Democratic Party candidate, opposed building a mosque and modest minaret.

Now completed and in use, it causes no trouble to anyone.

A menacing rally in Cologne against a new mosque was prevented by a counter-demonstration of almost all parties, unions, and religious groups, but its sponsors did manage to form a new local party and win city council seats for their unholy crusade.

The list of those warning against the fictional monster of Islamisation contained a few surprisingly prominent names.

If unemployment figures in Germany grow worse and social assistance is further cut by the new government, anger can be misdirected — not against those guilty of the misery; the banks, corporations, and pro-corporate politicians, but instead, as so often in history, against those who are suffering even more.

Eighty years ago it was Jewish people who were blamed, discriminated against, and then murdered. Today, the main attacks are directed against Muslim communities, which in Germany includes about 2 million people of Turkish descent, but also many Kurds, Africans, and Arabs from Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and other areas.

Even if the referendum vote is reversed by the Swiss Supreme Court or the European Court of Human Rights, to which all European countries belong, the result has damaged any Swiss reputation for tolerance, while encouraged the most dangerous elements of political life in Europe.

[Abridged from MRZine. Victor Grossman in a US journalist and author who lives in Berlin.]

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