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The Swiss and the Muslims

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.  57.5 percent of its 8 million population, or of those who went to the polls, voted to forbid minarets next to Muslim mosques.

As nearly everyone agreed, the minarets themselves were not so important.  The 400,000 Muslims living in Switzerland now 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, and 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!”

Several sad ironies are involved.  One is linguistic.  Switzerland has four official languages to begin with, which should breed tolerance, especially since German-speaking Swiss, and it is they who voted most frequently against the minarets, have a folksy dialect which sounds rather quaint to people in Germany but is so difficult to understand that Swiss films shown there require sub-titles.  Variety in cultures is a good thing, intelligent people generally believe, but it involves tolerance toward other people’s cultures.

Another ironic note is more tragic.  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, resulting in death to many or most of them.

This shameful episode, though most other countries at that time were equally guilty, makes the decision by over half of 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 whose political effects recall the crippling medical effects of thalidomide.  And far too many in other countries are all too willing to buy this poison.

Among those rejoicing were the Berlusconi backers in Italy.  A leader of the government party Lega Nord fantasized for the media: “Flying high above a Europe now almost fully Islamized is the flag of courageous Switzerland, which wishes to remain Christian.”

The daughter of that old racist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who now heads his Front National in France, expressed her warm satisfaction.  Geert Wilders, the handsome blond, and rabid Dutch filmmaker currently building a party based on Islamophobia, said: “We need a referendum like that in the Netherlands!”  His brother-in-arms in the Danish People’s Party echoed his sentiments.  In Austria, England, Spain, and elsewhere there were fanatic nationalists, racists, and neo-fascists, both the jackbooted thugs and the suave, elegant wheeler-dealers, to welcome 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.  Referring to Swiss voters, Wolfgang Bosbach, a key leader of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said: “Their worries must be taken seriously!”  He was quickly slapped down, but his message got through even the thickest shaven skulls.

Muslimphobia is not unknown in Germany.  In one borough of Berlin enraged demonstrations, egged on by a Christian Democratic candidate, opposed building a mosque and modest minaret.  Now completed and in use, it causes no troubles to anyone.  A menacing rally in Cologne against a new mosque was prevented by a counterdemonstration 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 Islamization, recalling “Yellow Peril” campaigns on the US West Coast, contained a few surprisingly prominent names.

If unemployment figures in Germany grow worse and social assistance is further cut by the new government, part of any angry protests can be misdirected, not against those guilty of the misery, the banks, corporations, and politicians obliged to them, indeed, their whole system, but instead, as so often in history, against those who are suffering even more.  Eighty years ago it was the Jews who were blamed, discriminated against, and then murdered.  The Jewish community today, although its size has increased in recent years, is hardly large or conspicuous enough to serve this purpose sufficiently.  It is still on the neo-Nazi list, but the main attacks, usually verbal thus far, are directed against Muslim communities, which include about 2 million people of Turkish descent, but also many Kurds, Africans, and Arabs from Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and other areas. 

This problem for immigrants is clearly international, involving long-lasting pressures of northern and western economies and cultures on those of the south and east.  Experience in many countries indicates that large immigrant groups usually can integrate into their host country but the process often lasts two or three generations.  Until then their differing appearance and culture, and the results of poverty and oppression, are all too often utilized to prevent unity among poor people and working people.

Even if the referendum vote should be reversed by the Swiss Supreme Court or the European Court of Human Rights, to which all European countries belong, even Switzerland, the 57.5 percent result of those who bothered to vote has done damage enough to any Swiss reputation for tolerance, while encouraging the most dangerous elements of political life in all Europe.

Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

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