The referendum in Switzerland against the building of minarets is unlikely to stick without a legal challenge—a challenge that may take it to the European Court of Human Rights. It breaks several points in Swiss law and the European Charter of Human Rights about the freedom of religion and expression—but that in itself makes the referendum's result that much more serious.
The Swiss People’s Party—a far-right party in Switzerland—pushed the referendum into action. While the Swiss government was officially against the proposal, it could not legally stop the referendum from taking place once the SWP managed to get the mandatory number of signatures urging a popular vote on the issue. No one thought to point out that this referendum essentially gave the majority the right to decide how the minority should practice its religion: a clear violation of core European liberal values.
All too often, the discourse in Europe implies that Muslims are a dormant fifth column who are waiting to destroy European civilization from within.
As soon as the result came in, we saw how quickly different parties on the European right weighed in—not to uphold traditional conservative values about liberty and independence from state control, but to say, ‘Hey! We want one of those too!’ The Northern League in Italy supported the outcome, while the far-right in Netherlands (led by Geert Wilders) called for such a referendum to be called in their country. The Belgian far-right party "Vlaams Belang" let us know exactly what this was about: European resistance against Islamic domination. It was not about, for example, concerns over foreign-looking buildings upsetting the beautiful Swiss horizon. There are less than half a dozen minarets in the whole country, after all. This was about something far more serious—the very presence of a visible Muslim community that is intent on remaining in Europe, and insists on being recognized as full European citizens, while keeping their faith.
• Plus: Read Eric Pape on Switzerland’s Gift to Osama The surging Muslim presence in the continent scares a lot of Europeans. Europe as a whole has been going through a magnificent identity crisis for decades—modernity, the trans-Atlantic relationship, and European integration all play their roles. In that crisis, Muslims are not exactly a comfortable reality for much of Europe—a continent that has historically had a bad record on respect for diversity and pluralism. One of the reasons America exists was that Europe could not cope with pluralism, so many simply left for the New World. It was in Europe, we have to remember, that the Spanish Inquisition took place, as did the Holocaust and the Bosnian genocide. We Europeans have a lot to be proud of, and of what we have given to the world—but there are some historical lessons that we still have not learned from enough.
In the midst of all that, Muslim Europeans are a problem. They are not white, by and large, although a significant minority are—and racism definitely has a part in all this. They adhere to a religion which for many centuries had provided many Europeans with an "alter-civilization" by which to judge themselves. Generally, they are less economically powerful than the average European—and we are kidding ourselves if we do not see the important class distinctions that play a role in this. Perhaps worst of all—Muslim Europeans, proportionately speaking, take religion seriously. The irony is that secularism is, for them, quite a useful procedural mechanism by which to protect themselves—but all too often, the discourse in Europe implies that Muslims are a dormant fifth column who are waiting to destroy European civilization from within. The banning of minarets is just the banning of a symbol in an ongoing struggle for the future of Europe. Will the controversy be successful in laying down the grounds for a truly pluralistic set of societies, confident and comfortable in their identities? Or will the future see something much darker?
Muslim Europeans have the responsibility (and the opportunity) to show, publicly, how they are active and contributing members of European societies—it should not have to be proven, but given the huge amount of Islamophobic sentiment that exists, this is a necessity. Drawing on history to show how these communities are European is desperately needed, particularly while European far-right parties deny Muslim Europeans the right to truly consider themselves, and their faith, as authentically European.
One cannot underestimate, however, the very difficult task that Europeans all have in maintaining and sustaining concepts of citizenship that those in the United States take for granted. Many European states are still framed by notions of ethnicity and race in citizenship; and certainly, national stories and narratives are very much informed by homogenous, monocultural ways of looking at the world.
Seeing the developments in Switzerland, it’s hard not to have some reservations, or downright pessimism, about the future of Europe. Over the past five years in particular, populist parties in Europe have become increasingly influential; not in getting people to vote for them, but in getting their agenda injected into national debates and into the mainstream. That’s not just in Switzerland, but all over Europe—whether in the U.K., where the U.K. Independence Party or British National Party Right have succeeded in moving political discussion further to the right; in France, with the efforts of the National Front; or in Austria, with the Freedom Party.
It’s necessary to seek out a pragmatic, authentic way to move forward where the nation is still vital to European consciousness. A nation must be able to open up and accept and recognize all elements of its country, including religious minorities like Muslims.
Contemporary European pluralism is a good way to ensure the presence of diverse, multicultural societies inside a matrix of national unity, if interpreted in a way that is consistent with our values, and historical experiences—particularly paying attention to the need to involve minorities within the mainstream. But a great deal of responsibility is on the shoulders of European Muslim and non-Muslim civil society alike. The opportunity is there for Muslim Europeans to become recognized and recognize themselves as indigenous, integral elements of the European fabric. But the possibility also exists that the ugly head of intolerance can re-emerge if European societies do not take matters seriously. Time will tell if a vision of comfortable, confident societies prevails—or if the Swiss referendum is a sign of far worse things to come.
H.A. Hellyer is fellow at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at Britain's University of Warwick. Previously a fellow with the Brookings Institution, Dr. Hellyer has advised both the British and the American governments on Muslim community affairs—his latest book, Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans, has just been published by Edinburgh University Press. His writings can be found at www.hahellyer.com.