With a Muslim constituency estimated to be between four and six percent of its total population, Switzerland is hardly in danger of being converted into a caliphate. Nevertheless, the country's Muslim communities were sent a clarion signal last week that their religion is perceived as a threat. While the ban on the construction of minarets, which was favored by 57.5 percent of the Swiss population in Sunday's referendum, may well prove inconsequential in itself, it occurred within the broader context of the recent political ascension of the Schweizerische Volkspartei, or Swiss People's Party, Switzerland's foremost purveyor of less than thinly veiled anti-immigrant sentiment (see image at right).
Reactions to the ban in the American media have ranged from sympathy to cynicism to outright disgust. To begin with, leading American Islamophobe Daniel Pipes tacitly praised the Swiss decision in the digital pages of National Review Online, arguing that the referendum marks "a possible turning point for European Islam," since the fact that "a large majority of those Swiss who voted on Sunday explicitly expressed anti-Islamic sentiments potentially legitimates such sentiments across Europe and opens the way for others to follow suit." Writing at his own blog, Matt Yglesias had the following to say in response:
He’s writing in NRO, and I can only think it’s fitting that the magazine that had the courage to stand up against Martin Luther King and voting rights for African-Americans should also take this stand. For non-repugnant commentary on this issue, I recommend Tyler Cowen.
Cowen, for his part, makes the provocative suggestion that "[s]ooner or later an open referendum process will get even a very smart, well-educated country into trouble." But, while less volatile legislative systems might be better suited to check the occasional outburst of xenophobia, it doesn't seem adequate in this case to attribute the problem to a sheer excess of democracy.
At The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan minced no words in declaring the ban a "useless" and "clumsy" maneuver, liable to "to provoke religious hostility and intolerance and thereby further radicalize Swiss Muslims," as well as "a fascistic act and a profound attack on religious freedom." Whether you find Sullivan hyperbolic or duly indignant, there can be little doubt that the minaret ban represents a strong blow—more symbolic, perhaps, than concrete—to the already tenuous pluralism of an increasingly diverse Europe.
Now it seems that the Swiss may be warming to really warming to the idea of religious intolerance. Christophe Darbellay, the president of the Christian Democratic People's Party of Switzerland (a mainstream party which is part of the country's current coalition government) on Thursday told a TV interviewer that there should also be a ban on separate Muslim and Jewish cemeteries.
As with the aforementioned minaret ban, Darbellay doesn't think the current cemeteries should be dug up. He just thinks there shouldn't be any more in the future.