With Swiss Minaret Vote, European Identity Politics at Play

By Ariel Kastner

With almost 58 percent of Swiss voters recently delivering an electoral surprise by casting ballots in favour of a referendum to ban construction of minarets in their country, it remains to be seen whether the result of the referendum will be good for Switzerland, or even for Europe as a whole.

This may seem odd to consider since the result is not only embarrassing for the Swiss government, but may also cause international legal and economic repercussions for the country. However, the referendum’s outcome could mark the start of a beneficial process for Switzerland and Europe in coming to terms with the need to change the way they have addressed notions of culture, state identity and individual rights.

Switzerland’s vote has exposed long-festering uneasiness within Europe towards immigration and members of ethnic communities, particularly those that are Muslim. This European apprehension has not only been expressed through violence and civil unrest, including protests in Cologne, Germany against a mosque that would have overshadowed the city’s cathedral, but also through national-level legislation in some countries. The 2004 French law banning the wearing of overtly religious symbols, notably Muslim headscarves, in public schools is perhaps the most salient example of state-sanctioned restrictions on religious freedoms.

While the Swiss vote stands in contrast to the French legislation, in its grassroots rather than legislative origin, it is an extension of the same sentiment to a more pronounced and offensive end, as it specifically targets one religious group. Some have noted the vote thus speaks to the fear many Europeans, and in this case the Swiss, have of the “Islamisation” of Europe. But to view what occurred in Switzerland solely through the prism of a battle between Europe and Islam would be to overlook the deeper issue plaguing the continent.

While the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document that articulates inherent rights of the individual – was adopted in France, and Geneva hosted the convention that forged protocols for protecting individual rights during times of war, there seems to be a prevailing attitude in Europe that individual rights end at the doorstep of state identity. What this means is that a citizen is welcome to be Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist in Europe, as long as this identity, or practicing this identity, does not conflict with a definition of what it means to be Swiss or French or European.

This situation has raised troubling and uncomfortable questions: What does it really mean to be Swiss or French? Is it social mores – to dress, talk or eat a certain way – or is it to hold specific values and ideals? Recent events seem to indicate that many Europeans feel more comfortable embracing the former, rather than the latter, making European identity akin to an unwritten code, where ill-defined norms are held in the highest regard.

The Swiss vote has forced Europe to consider which is more important, protecting the perceived identity of one’s state, or protecting the rights of the individuals, regardless of ethnicity or religion, who live in one’s state.

Thus far, many have felt comfortable with a murky answer to this question, but as the Swiss vote showed, more clarity is necessary as Europe continues to grow, and to the dismay of some, to change.

What is needed, then, is not only a reconciliation with and embrace of Europe’s Muslim citizens but a broader attitudinal shift that holds the ideals of enlightenment, tolerance and respect as the proud identity of Europe. Indeed, the irony of the current situation is that many inside and outside of Europe view enlightenment and liberalism as an integral part of Europe’s core identity.

If the vote makes Switzerland, and all of Europe, take pause to consider whether it wants to embrace this virtuous identity and see that allowing individuals to practice diverse religions and embrace diverse cultures bolsters this identity, it will have been for the good.

Ariel Kastner is publications manager and a research analyst at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings institution in Washington.

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