Letter from Switzerland

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(343)

A referendum has led to a constitutional ban on the construction of minarets on mosques. Charles-André Udry reports on the scapegoating of Muslims in the country.

Swiss citizens voted by 57.5 percent in a recent referendum for the introduction of an article into the constitution ruling, "The construction of minarets is forbidden." Participation in the poll, held across the country on 29 November 2009, was very high by Swiss standards, at 53.4 percent. There are currently only four minarets in Switzerland, in Geneva, Basel and Winterthur. The populations of all three of these cities voted against the ban.

The referendum was called after anti-minaret campaigners gathered 100,000 signatures over 18 months, as is the constitutional requirement. The campaign before the vote suggested that minarets were to be built on a massive scale in Switzerland, but this has never been the case. The minaret was used as a symbol of "the danger of the growing Islamification of Switzerland". The anti-minaret posters left no doubt about the campaign's real message.

In a population of 7.5 million, 1.7 million are foreigners. Two thirds of these immigrants are from the European Union or European Free Trade Association. The Swiss government stresses that this is unusual, noting that immigration to other Western European countries comes principally from outside the EU.

There is an official stigmatisation of immigrants from the Western Balkans (mainly Kosovans and Albanians). Onto this demographic base, those who campaigned for the referendum have added "Islam".

This campaign marks a change from xenophobic initiatives of the past. First, previous attempts have always failed. But this initiative has created an opening for wider xenophobia and racism.

In reality, there are only 400,000 Muslims in the country, of whom no more than around 12 percent are practising. This latest Islamophobic campaign was launched by a significant sector of the largest political party in Switzerland, the Swiss People's Party (SVP). The SVP, an alliance involving major capitalist forces and a broader popular membership, has been involved in the national unity government for decades alongside the Social Democrats and two right wing parties.

In Switzerland even a minimal understanding of the conflict between capital and labour has been nearly eradicated, thanks to the active mobilisation of Social Democrats and trade unions to defend a "labour peace" in working class struggle. So the fabricated threat of Muslims had the ability to resonate among a wide layer of workers. This scapegoating gains legitimacy in the context of the wider myths about Islam perpetuated by the international media.

There have been several referendums held which are hostile to Muslims in various German Swiss states and municipalities since the early 2000s. The ground was being prepared. In Zurich in 2003 the SVP campaigned for official derecognition of non-Christian religions using the slogan, "No tax money for Quranic schools." This was defeated.

This time the result can be explained not only by the reservoir of xenophobia cultivated by the government, but also by those wishing to express their frustrations in a time of socioeconomic trauma and economic crisis. These voters were joined by those claiming to defend "secularism" - indeed, they rallied to "secular Christianity" - or "feminism". One wonders how the constitutional stigmatisation of Muslims can meet the demands of women.

There have also been serious divisions between the Social Democrats and wider forces opposed to the right. The Social Democrats have consistently argued that there are "good", assimilated, Muslims and "bad" Muslims who do not integrate.

Immediately after the referendum the Social Democrats and conservatives called for a ban on headscarves in schools. This issue has never been a problem in Switzerland, but it is being made out to be so.

Demonstrations, largely by young Swiss people and immigrants, against xenophobia and racism have taken place in response to the ban. A new task awaits socialist revolutionaries.


Charles-André Udry is from the Movement for Socialism