The 2005 publication of the “Danish cartoons” mocking the Prophet Muhammad sparked riots, bloodshed, and a Muslim boycott of Danish products, notably feta cheese. I fervently hope that the Swiss referendum vote in favour of banning minarets does not lead to a similar backlash, but I’m willing to endorse an international boycott of cuckoo clocks. If they don’t want our minarets in their cities, I’m buggered if I can see why we should provide their cuckoos with dinky little houses on our living room walls.

Of course, hostility towards the building of Muslim facilities is not confined to Switzerland – witness Camden – but the Swiss referendum takes this to a whole new level.

No talk about town planning requirements or problems with parking – the campaign by the right-wing S.V.P was a very explicit fear campaign against “Islamisation”, claiming that minarets symbolised an ideology of terrorism, forced marriages, and execution by stoning.

I asked a Swiss journalist about the referendum campaign a couple of months ago. He said “The thing to understand about Muslims in Switzerland is that they are mainly Albanian, and they drive too fast on the roads.”

As their imans cheer from the minarets, apparently. “Pedal to the metal, Mustafa! Allahu Akbar!”

Most Muslims know as little about Switzerland as we knew about Denmark, but these kinds of events are not contained within borders anymore. Muslim media and social networking sites have been discussing this story in the weeks leading to the referendum, generally citing soothing analyses that forecast a strong “no” vote on the proposed ban. After all, the ban was opposed by the Swiss government, by local Christian and Jewish leaders, and by the Vatican.

The result, then, comes as a shock – and not only in Switzerland, where Muslim leaders are calling for calm. Intersecting with developments such as the proposed burka ban in France and the furore over the application to open an Islamic school in Camden, it builds a perception of escalating hostility in Western societies towards visible Muslimness.

In practical terms, the minaret ban means very little. Only a small minority of Muslims in Switzerland attend mosque (and an even smaller minority of Muslim women in France wear burka). There are only four minarets in the whole country. The SVP has proclaimed loudly that the ban is on minarets, not mosques, and so it does not affect Muslims’ freedom to assemble.

But in symbolic terms, of course, it means much more. Labelling minarets as alien features on the landscapes is a none-too-subtle way of saying that Muslims are an alien population on the streets. It also undermines the campaign for liberal democratic values in Muslim countries, when liberal democracy in the West is seen as delivering inequitable outcomes. Commentators point out that it is not exactly easy to open churches in Muslim countries.

But the Swiss ban sends the message that the rights of religious minorities are subject to the whim of the majority.

The fear whipped up by populist campaigns is often short-lived. Community leaders and politicians are working on rebuilding bridges, and in the long term, the ban may not stand. Let’s hope so — otherwise I may be forced to escalate my cuckoo-clock ban to chocolate. Swiss chocolate, anyway…

Peter Fray

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