Monday, 30 November 2009

Shadow of the minaret

You're allowed to be racist against the Swiss. Just as you're allowed to be racist against the Israelis, or the Serbs, or the Ulster protestants, or the white working class in Britain (and the United States). Making generalised slurs about the national character of the varied and polyglot cantons whose primitive democracy somehow survived the various tidying-up exercises of history is a way of demonstrating your own liberal allegiances. The Swiss are, after all, xenophobic, small-minded, dissimulating, money-obsessed yodellers. Their trains may run on time, but we all know what that means.

The Swiss are insular and clannish: that's why they've managed to rub along together for centuries with several languages and very little in the way of central administration. They are reactionary and bigoted: that explains why the Red Cross was a Swiss invention, why for decades Geneva was the centre of the human rights industry. They are, in the worst sense of the word, conservative: why, they even believe in direct democracy and universal gun-ownership. And, of course, they were only neutral during the War so they could get their greedy Niebelungisch hands on all that Nazi gold.

It's always pleasant to discover a dark side to the antiseptic prosperity and clockwork efficiency of the Swiss, and yesterday's vote to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland has allowed anti-Swiss bigotry free reign. They have done a Bad Thing by objecting to the visible spread of Islam - a decision that, to judge by some of the coverage, is tantamount to deporting the country's Muslims to concentration camps. The Guardian was typical (but then the Guardian always is). The Swiss, the leader column notes, (as though it were relevant) "give shelter to wealthy migrants seeking to escape taxes" but have now "pulled aside their veneer of internationalism" to display an "Alpine distrust of outsiders". Referring to the poster used to encourage a Yes vote, the Guardian notes "the provocative nature of a campaign fought in the Nazi colours of red, black and white."

Stereotyping the Swiss is just one avenue of explanation available. There's also the Thick Public line. The anti-mosque campaigners (which included some high-profile feminists as well as the more obvious xenophobes) exploited deep-seated but mistaken fears - "particularly among rural communities" writes the BBC's Imogen Foulkes - of Islamic expansionism. Or as the Guardian put it, "voters were really being lured to express their views on religion and race." The subtext here is that democracy is dangerous because it gives power to the ignorant and the bigoted. Joan Smith, for example, finds it "cheering" that the vote - one among many hundreds held each year - "demonstrates the idiocy of referendums". That's no different from saying that Tony Blair's repeated election victories demonstrated the idiocy of general elections. Which, in a sense, they did.

"Can we be sure" asks the Guardian, "that the people of Austria, France, Britain or the Netherlands would have voted differently, if given the chance?" Fortunately, they'll never have the opportunity. Indeed, Foulkes reports that the Swiss Justice Minister "apparently told her advisers there ought to be some restrictions on what the general public can actually vote on." The Swiss tradition of direct democracy has not led to a noticeably less liberal society than exists in the rest of Europe - the very opposite, in some respects - but the people do have a habit of voting in ways uncongenial to politicians (not wanting to join the European Union, for example). It was perhaps only a matter of time before Swiss leaders began to adopt the suspicion of popular opinion that has become second nature to most members of the European elite.

Another common response to the vote has been the usual elitist Islamophobia: i.e. the fear that there will be an uncontrollable backlash from Muslims comparable with the Danish cartoons crisis. Le Temps, described as Geneva's" establishment" newspaper, warned of the "spectacular" backlash that awaited. "Vengeance, boycotts, retaliation ... this clash with Islam could cost dearly." Among Swiss politicians there is said to be "an expectation" that the economy will suffer (money, you see, it's all these Swiss really care about) and the "traditionally good trade relations" with the Arab world take a hit. Other tax havens, after all, are available for the Gulf sheikhs to put their oil-money; and where else would they get their luxury watches? So far, there have been few signs of a violent backlash, either, among the non-Rolex wearing rentamobs. Egypt's Grand Mufti called it "an attempt to insult the feelings of the Muslim community in and outside Switzerland", but that's about it.

Given that there's no actual blasphemy involved, I don't expect there will be too many negative repercussions. After all, Saudi Arabia bans all Christian churches, not just those with bell-towers, while in Egypt religiously-motivated planning rules have made it virtually impossible for the Coptic community to repair their existing churches, let alone build any new ones. When it comes to religious pluralism, few Muslim countries are in much position to complain.

Of course, it's hard to describe the vote as a victory for tolerance or liberal attitudes. But it would be equally wrong to assume that the enemies of the prayer-towers were all frothing xenophobes. There were also secularists and feminists in the mix. A feminist quoted in the Guardian claimed that minarets were "male power symbols" and "a visible signal of the state's acceptance of the oppression of women." She is described as a psychologist, which may be a clue. In fact, minarets are no more phallic in appearance than many church spires or the skyline of Dubai. Architecture is, however, often an expression of confidence, expansionism and arrogance: you don't have to be an out-and-out Islamophobe to feel queasy about the proposed construction of a 70,000 capacity "mega-mosque" in East London. The referendum result was symbolic and at first sight seems rather absurd. The absence of minarets will not prevent the spread of radical Islam, after all. But it will prevent the spread of Islamic architecture, and perhaps that's the point. As minarets sprout all over Europe, Swiss Islam will remain quiet and unobtrusive. How very Swiss.