Don’t Blame the Swiss

The ban on minarets wasn’t driven by bigotry; it was about fear of extremists.

The minaret of a Geneva mosque

A few weeks ago, I found myself walking through a Swiss village—OK, it was really a Geneva suburb—called Nyon. Still, it looked like a village: There was a castle on the hill and some Roman ruins. There were a few shops and a nice view of the lake. There was no mosque anywhere to be seen. There were no women wearing burqas in the carefully landscaped city park.

What is true of Nyon is true of most of Switzerland, a country in which there are very few mosques—no more than 150 in the whole country, apparently, including tiny “prayer rooms”—virtually no burqas, and hardly any head scarves. The vast majority of the country’s 400,000 Muslims are from Turkey and Kosovo, and women from these countries generally do not follow the conservative dress codes commonly seen in places like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, people in places just like Nyon last week voted decisively—57.4 percent said yes—in favor of a referendum that will ban the construction of minarets on mosques throughout Switzerland. This decision has been interpreted across Europe, and particularly in the United States, as evidence of Swiss bigotry and rising religious intolerance. But it was not—or, at least, not entirely. It was evidence of fear, though not fear of “foreigners” or “outsiders” as such.

As I say, there is very little evidence that separatist, politically extreme Islam is growing rapidly in Switzerland. However, the Swiss read newspapers, and they watch television. And in recent years, separatist, politically extreme forms of Islam have indeed emerged in every European country with a large Muslim population. Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, and Sweden have seen court cases and scandals concerning forced marriage, female circumcision, and honor killings. There have also been terrorist incidents: Think of the London transportation bombings, the Spanish train bombs, the murder of Dutch film director Theo van Gogh. Remember that the 9/11 pilots came from Hamburg.

There are many explanations for this phenomenon (the best is found in Christopher Caldwell’s recent book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe), but, to put it very crudely, they boil down to one thing: Thanks to mistakes made by both Europeans and the Muslim immigrants who live beside them, the two groups have, over the last several decades, failed to integrate. Two or even three generations after their arrival, some European Muslims still live in separate communities. They often go to separate schools. And a small but vocal minority openly refuses to respect the laws and customs of their adopted countries.

No European government has successfully found a way to deal with this phenomenon. And those that have tried often find themselves running up against their own civil rights and legal traditions. The Danes, determined to limit the number of foreign spouses entering Denmark through arranged marriages, found they had no choice but to make it more difficult for all Danes to marry all foreigners. The French, realizing that the head scarf had become a symbol of political affiliation in some French schools, found themselves limiting the rights of all students to wear religious clothing, including yarmulkes, to school.

There is, therefore, nothing especially Swiss, or especially isolationist, about last week’s referendum result. A similar question, put in a similar way, might well have had a similar result anywhere in Europe. In fact, fear of Islamist extremism now shapes all European politics far more than anyone ever acknowledges. The growth of the so-called “far-right” parties in the recent past is almost always connected to fear of Islamist extremism. The opposition to Turkish membership of the European Union—which would mean that Turks could eventually work freely in any member state—comes from the same set of fears, though almost no one ever says so.

The referendum on the construction of minarets is no different. No one quite says what the real issue is, but everybody knows: As grotesquely unfair as a referendum to ban minarets may have been to hundreds of thousands of ordinary, well-integrated Muslims, I’ve no doubt that that the Swiss voted in favor primarily because they don’t have much Islamic extremism—and they don’t want any, either.