Sunday 29 November 2009

Swiss No to minarets ─Yes to what?

Among eurobloggers at least Julien Frisch and Gulf Stream Blues have already reacted clearly against the Swiss referendum banning minarets. Erkan’s Field Diary says it at least as forcefully in a blog post he has promised to update soon: In Switzerland, Fascism seems to be getting ground…

I wrote a comment on Julien’s blog, but thought that I might post it on Grahnlaw as well:


I agree with much of what you say. This is a sad day for Europe, of which Switzerland is a part, although somewhat apart.

A cynical campaign to sow discord has "succeeded" to do that. When we think of the disproportionate reactions to an individual Danish cartoonist and a newspaper acting within the rules of free speech, this manifestation of the will of a nation will cause feelings of humiliation and anger, easy to exploit for hate-preachers, putting Swiss diplomatic missions, firms and expats at risk (and perhaps others).

This is once again an example of the effects of referendums. Women's suffrage at the federal level was approved only in 1971 in Switzerland.

Representative democracy is to a large extent majority rule, but combined with provisions for the protection of freedoms (unalienable rights, respect for human dignity) it can help build more tolerant societies.

As you say, these questions are difficult:

I would not be comfortable with muezzins calling the faithful to prayer six times a day if using loudspeakers to overpower everything else in the vicinity, but I do not mind church bells ringing at times.

I feel split about crucifixes in secular state schools; should they be abolished through the courts, or should we tolerate different customs?

How about clothing and other symbols? Can you study, work and interact as a free citizen, if you wear a burqa? Can anyone condone genital mutilation?

Somehow we need to look for answers together, at a European level, learning from mistakes, but somehow we should preserve a sense of humanity in our efforts.

Prejudices and referendums are a lethal combination. The Swiss have shown us that.


In Europe as a whole and in the European Union, we cannot turn the clock back. Cultural diversity and different beliefs need to be protected, as long as they cause no real harm to the rights of others. These difficult issues are common concerns, and we need to discuss them at European level.

Ralf Grahn

P.S. Do you find EUSSR myths fascinating? Are we EU citizens worth a better European Union? Educate yourself! There are already 487 Euroblogs aggregated on multilingual You can access all the posts on the Posts page, or concentrate on the editors’ choices on the Home page. On most of the blogs you can comment and discuss our common European future.


  1. "This is once again an example of the effects of referendums."

    Rubbish! What about the French ban on headscarves in schools, or the opposition of many EU countries against the accession of Turkey on grounds that it is not a Christian country?

    The Swiss ban on minarets is just another one in a much longer list of xenophobic European measures against muslims.

    Instead of blaming democracy, I think it is better to blame politicians and their inability to provide a convincing answer to the xenophobic trend.

  2. smsh,

    I am not blaming only referendums, although I see them as clear risks with regard to fundamental rights and sensible decisions generally.

    Representative democracy is far from perfect, but generally leads to better outcomes than plebiscites, and more easily corrected.

    Bans on headscarves, crucifixes and other religious symbols are, as I said, difficult questions.

    We can only try to find our way through the maze by trying to find equitable solutions, looking for reciprocal rules, applicable to all.

  3. No, that is true, your blog post is more nuanced than that.

    But I still think you are way too easily putting any blame at all on Switzerland's semi-direct democracy, with no other justification than that it happened to be there when the decision was taken. The head scarf ban in France, the death penalty in the US, or the war in Iraq initiated by the US and the UK - is representative democracy to blame for those then? Oh no, of course not, because "representative democracy is far from perfect". Well, direct democracy is not either, and sometimes produces equally (not more) ludicrous results.

    Because people are not perfect - *that* is the real crux of the matter. If we want to preserve and promote fundamental rights, the best defence we can put up against decisions like the above is 1) to make sure a system of checks and balances is in place that works, and 2) that fundamental political decisions and principles are discussed and supported by broad sections of society and not just by a progressive elite.

    And yes, I do think that referendums like they are held in Switzerland (as opposed to plebiscites organised by the incumbent government) have a role to play in both regards.

    The worst enemy today of the enlightened values you and I both (I think) support, is an increasing anti-political cynicism among the population, large parts of which feel unable to adapt to a changing life and environment, unable to change it, uninformed and left-out.

    The best answer to this is not to put voters at an even greater distance of actual decision-making, but to confront head-on the causes of that cynicism. Politicians should convince voters, not overrule them. As a wise man once said: Democracy is not for cowards.

  4. smsh,

    Thank you for your nuanced reply. No system of government produces perfect outcomes, but I still see represented democracy as producing better outcomes than referendums, in general.

    Referendums tend to produce conservative results, they are risks for minorities, they are extremely hard to correct and they are ill suited to complex issues (where one simple solution may prevent balanced governance for the whole polity).

    For me democracy is representative democracy, as the norm, with limited use of for referendums on issues of fundamental importance.

    Have you looked at the situation in California? Have you thought about why plebiscites have been so popular among authoritarian rulers.

    Back to the issue at hand.

    Switzerland is a member of the Council of Europe, party to the European Convention on Human Rights, and bound by the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.

    I am reasonably optimistic that the ban on minarets will be struck down, although the practical effects may be more symbolic than real. Nothing will, of course, eradicate the effect Swiss voters have made on the image of their country.

    About a week ago, many Catholics were shocked by the ECtHR ruling banning crucifixes in secular state schools in Italy.

    It is not easy to find equitable rules, applicable to all, in the spirit of reciprocity, Kant's categorical imperative, the Golden Rule, or whatever you want to call it.

    Still, the European countries grapple with these issues, and they have a supranational corrective mechanism in place to keep them on the narrow path.

    The Council of Europe and the European Union see freedom of thought, conscience and religion as universal rights, applicable everywhere.

    What we see in many parts of the world outside Europe are totalitarian, authoritarian or repressive regimes, with little respect for even basic human rights.

    It is anybody's guess how much immigration from such countries contributes to the xenophobic reactions you mention in European countries, but a sense of proportion would not go amiss.


Due deluge of spam comments no more comments are accepted.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.