As Sunday’s Swiss vote to ban the construction of mosque minarets continues to reverberate, the winners are becoming abundantly clear. Yes, the xenophobic far-right Swiss People’s Party that propelled the initiative forward will reap the short-term political benefits of an overwhelming 57.5 percent victory. And yes, sizable populist parties around Europe—especially in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, and France—are already gleefully calling for their own similar referendums to stave off “Islamization.” But the big winner may well be Osama bin Laden. (More on this in a moment.)
The losers? There are so many. They include Switzerland’s various luxury, tourism, and banking industries—all of which benefit enormously from wealthy Muslim tourists and vacationers (especially from the Middle East) who are likely to feel, and rightly so, that their religion was targeted. A peripheral loser is Europe, which struggles to remain true to its hard-earned freedom of religious values, and to accommodate its vast Muslim population, even as populist politicians see an easy electoral payoff.
Swiss Red Cross workers in Central Asia, northern and eastern Africa, and the Middle East can’t be happy about the target that their compatriots have just painted on them.
But the biggest loser is the legendarily neutral Switzerland itself, as the minaret referendum invites unprecedented security threats, both within the alpine nation and to its many humanitarian workers in remote outposts. (Swiss Red Cross workers in Central Asia, northern and eastern Africa, and the Middle East can’t be happy about the target that their compatriots have just painted on them.) As the Swiss Minister of Foreign Affairs Micheline Calmy-Rey warned during the campaign, a ban on minarets risked making her country into “a target for Islamic terrorism.”
There is little doubt about the potentially explosive impact of this vote. Remember those illustrated Danish comics—including one of the prophet Muhammad wearing a turban-bomb? They led to the torching of several Scandinavian embassies in the Middle East, a boycott of Danish products, threats to numerous European Union workers in the region, and broad protests across the Muslim world that reportedly sparked the killing of around 170 people (mostly from police firing into crowds). And when the French government banned Muslim headscarves from public schools, it brought recordings of death threats from al Qaeda and its allies abroad.
Well, this is worse.
Al Qaeda has long paid careful attention to Western elections—even timing the 2004 Madrid bombings to shake up the Spanish vote—but rarely have they received such a distinctive electoral gift.
So how did it happen? The Swiss vote came after a cartoonishly cynical and barely coherent campaign that tapped into primitive fears of Muslims, as well as a complete misunderstanding of radical Islam. The anti-minaret side blurred talk and images of the worst stereotypes about Islam—forced marriage, dark forces, genital mutilation, and the burqa. Minarets, meanwhile, are little more than an aesthetic symbol in Europe, where they are rarely permitted their traditional role of broadcasting the call to prayer. The campaign portrayed them as literal weapons of Islam.
One high-profile campaign poster showed an array of missile-minarets rising from a Swiss flag next to a woman covered by her jet-black burqa (never mind that the only fully veiled women most Swiss people encounter tend to be big-franc shoppers from the Persian Gulf). The campaign gave the impression that Switzerland would soon be inundated with hundreds of minarets, which Ulrich Schlüer, a mastermind of the anti-minaret campaign absurdly asserted, is “a symbol of political power, a prelude to the introduction of Sharia law.”
Back on planet Earth, Switzerland has just four—yes, four—minarets at the moment. (There are—or were—plans to build about 10 more.) Sharia law seems particularly unlikely given that barely 10 percent of Switzerland’s estimated 400,000 Muslims actively practice their faith in a country of nearly 8 million people. And most Swiss Muslims have migrated from nations with particularly strong secular traditions (Turkey, Albania, and the former Yugoslavia), leaving many of them about as likely to be extremists as are non-practicing cultural Jews in the U.S.
That didn’t stop the president of the populist party’s anti-minaret committee, Walter Wobmann, from describing the vote as “a victory for this people, this Switzerland, this freedom and those who want a democratic society." The Geneva daily Le Temps saw things differently, explaining the referendum thus: “The Swiss have voted with their guts… inspired by fear, fantasy and ignorance.”
In the Muslim world, the response was swift and entirely negative. Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa told his country’s state-run news agency that the referendum vote was an effort to “insult the feelings of the Muslim community in and outside Switzerland,” but he called on Muslims to not be provoked by the vote and for those in the alpine nation to fight back in the courtroom. In fact, that is where the constitutional change may well be defeated. Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (who decided last week not to appeal the pending release into house arrest of French-Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski) said that the minarets measure violates antidiscrimination legislation and religious freedom. But even if the measure is eliminated before it can be enacted, a substantial majority has sent a clear message: If you are a Muslim citizen, you are somehow less Swiss, with fewer rights.
Yes, Islam obviously continues to have an image problem within Switzerland (and Europe), but the Swiss appear to now have a more immediate problem with the broader Muslim world and, soon, a graver one with far-off radical extremists. The minarets, of course, have nothing to do with missiles—the handfuls of mainland European Muslim extremists who have attempted violence in recent years have generally attended minaret-free places of worship, sometimes in basements. But we can only hope that the Swiss campaign doesn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that it didn’t trigger the countdown on a time bomb.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Reader's Digest, Vibe, Courrier International, Salon, and Los Angeles from five continents. He is based in Paris. Follow him at twitter.com/ericpape