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Binoy Kampmark: Banning Minarets in Switzerland

Banning Minarets in Switzerland

The Swiss are in a spot of bother, at least before the disapproving eyes of international opinion. 57 percent of those from a country described by Jonathan Raban as full of phobic hand washers in a Barclays Bank have voted in favour of banning minarets. Commentators have been quick to fit this architectural aversion as a Europe-wide protest.

In this vote, we can detect an emerging pattern of populist backlashes across Europe. The specter of Islam moving into Europe’s Christian heartlands is a terrifying prospect for some communities. Others, like Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, simply regard mosques as nuisances crying out for closure. Last year, the Minister set his sights on the Milan mosque.

The parties of the political Right have placed Islam at the forefront of Europe’s dangers. Their fears were given some airing last year when its leaders from 15 European countries convened in Antwerp to discuss measures on how to ban mosques and halt the ‘Islamicisation of European cities.’ Grouchy columnists such as Mark Steyn see a ‘demographic time bomb’ surreptitiously planted within Europe given current rates of Muslim immigration and births. The campaigns were particularly threatening leading up to the Sunday vote, showing menacing minarets rising like missiles out of the earth. The campaign posters of the Swiss People’s Party were considered toxic enough by the cities of Basel, Lausanne and Fribourg to be banned.

Oliver Kamm disagrees (The Times, Nov 30) with the general premise that Europe risks succumbing to Islam, pointing out that Muslims are a minor grouping in Europe with falling median fertility rates. He instead chooses to see the Swiss vote as ‘a blow against freedom of association and conscience.’ The blow is, as is so often the case with such reactions, misdirected. Less than 13 percent of Muslims in the state, for one, count themselves as practicing. Most are, according to Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, well integrated, despite the odd bad apple. Many, for instance, were refugees from the Balkan Civil Wars of the 1990s.

The consequences of this action will be fundamental. The obvious one, and one that is bound to matter most to the Swiss, is banking. Wealthy Muslims who stash their vast reserves in Swiss bank accounts may well look elsewhere to park it. The luxury shopping will duly follow. As the ledger of exports to Muslim countries last year amounted to $14.5 billion Swiss Francs, the impact is far from negligible. Human rights committees will harass the small state with appeals to renounce the vote and repudiate the views of those not-so-wise burghers. International lawyers will argue that the ban violates the law of nations, something bound to keep the European Court of Human Rights busy.

The other aspect of such a move is that it will serve to aggravate a condition it is supposedly designed to halt. Any such prohibition is an offering to genuine extremists, who will be more than willing stir more moderate followers into action. Papers in Muslim world will have much to write about.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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