Swiss citizens disgrace themselves on minaret vote

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A sizable proportion of Switzerland's 7.5 million people committed an unexpected and shocking act of religious intolerance last weekend by voting to ban the building of more minarets on mosques.

There are only four minarets in Switzerland. Barely four per cent of the population is Muslim, mostly refugees from the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Among Swiss Muslims, only 13 per cent practise their religion. These few Swiss Muslims have nothing in common with theocratic Taliban fanatics.

Now a minority population in a democratic country will be made to feel marginalized and unwanted. Their Swiss-born children will feel like second-class citizens. Nothing good can come from pushing citizens to the margins.

Western nations complain about the undoubted intolerance of Islamic countries toward Christians and Jews. Such complaints are a way to advocate and embrace religious freedom as a universal value.

Yet the Swiss People's Party managed to play on specific fears about Islam in its campaign against minarets. It painted this nearly invisible minority as a dangerous force bent on undermining democracy.

Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss citizen and professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University, suggests that Swiss Muslims are in part to blame, by remaining quiet and hoping that way to avoid conflict. They should have taken a public stand against the excesses that Islam has come to stand for in the Western imagination, Ramadan says.

"Over the last two decades Islam has become connected to so many controversial debates -- violence, extremism, freedom of speech, gender discrimination, forced marriage, to name a few -- it is difficult for ordinary citizens to embrace this new Muslim presence as a positive factor," Ramadan wrote in the Guardian this week.

And that's the secret behind this alarming and foolish result in Switzerland: Minarets became a lightning rod, so to speak, for all the worries and alarms the liberal West feels about some aspects of global Islam.

The Swiss People's Party deserves to be brought sharply to order for trying to restrict freedom of religion to "defend" Switzerland. Unfortunately that seems unlikely right now. Politicians of all stripes will be looking at the referendum result with great interest.

Banning minarets is fatuous. There are better ways to handle public fears, both sensible ones and pointless ones. A society has to work together to forge a country that all can call home.

Posted December 02, 2009, The Montreal Gazette

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