In the weeks preceding the 27 November, there were certainly no calls to prayer to be heard on the streets of Switzerland’s cities (not that this is normally the case). Instead, under the guise of freedom of speech, posters depicting a woman dressed in a burqa standing amongst minarets worryingly resembling missiles were beginning to pop up all over the Alpine country. These were part of the Yes-vote campaign instigated by the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP – Schweizerische Volkspartei) to ban the construction of minarets.
In the referendum, 57% of the electorate (and 22 out of 26 cantons) voted in favour of the controversial effort to outlaw the building of minarets on mosques, and if the decision is not overturned by the Supreme Court in Switzerland or the European Court of Human Rights, it may eventually be enshrined in the Swiss constitution. I had been aware of the anti-immigration and xenophobic attitudes surfacing from time to time in Switzerland, but such was the shock caused by the outcome of the election, that it prompted me to look for research on Switzerland and Islam.
Starting with a basic search for ‘Switzerland’ and ‘Islam’, an article on the definition of ‘Islamophobia’ sounds like a good place to start. Explaining islamophobia. A test of four theories based on the case of a Swiss city by Jörg Stolz (Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 2005) touches on the relationship between Islamophobia and xenophobia, but I am not convinced that Stolz’s explanation of a traditional world-view is all-encompassing. After all, the referendum was the result of chauvinism in the form a proposal by the far-right SVP.
I suspect that the game of populism is at play, and modify my search by swapping ‘Islam’ for ‘populism’. Among the hits is an interesting piece by Daniele Albertazzi, comparing Swiss and Italian populism. Reconciling ‘voice’ and ‘exit’: Swiss and Italian populists in power (Politics, 2009) focuses on strategic communication as applied by populist parties, including the SVP, and concludes that despite being in government, these parties are still set on conducting ‘spectacular politics’ with no sign of ‘moderation’.
If the masterminds of the referendum were to be believed, they were only trying to prevent the Islamisation of Switzerland. However, it is clear that such ostracism (and violation of the freedom of religion) will only lead to further straining community relations. In another article appearing among the results, Stephane Lathion examines the compatibility of Islam with citizenship in Switzerland. Muslims in Switzerland: is citizenship really incompatible with Muslim identity? (Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 2008) is written from the view point of Muslims, and their desire to integrate. It is clear that campaigns such as the one led by the SVP are going to make co-existence more difficult for both sides.
It seems to me that SVP and its cronies identified an issue that could be ruthlessly exploited in a cleverly (albeit discriminatorily) constructed campaign equating Islam and extremism. Not a feat of genius certainly, but one that would be guaranteed to bring with it strong opinions and controversy. In true populist style, rather than promoting tolerance and harmony, the SVP continued its politicisation of otherness, and in the process gave the Swiss electorate an opportunity to use the referendum on a private matter (religion) in the public sphere (the constitution). As a result, it seems that the only sound echoing in Switzerland now will be the ubiquitous cuckoo clock.