There is no problem with Islam in Switzerland. At least, there was none until 2009. But then, confounding poll predictions, and stupefying the Swiss political institutions, religious organizations, as well as mainstream media, 57.5% of the citizen voted a constitutional ban on the construction of minarets. Yet, less than half a million of Muslims lives in the country. The majority of them (90%) comes from Turkey or Central Europe. They amount to eight per cent of the Swiss population. And out of the two hundred Muslim centers in Switzerland, only four mosques had a minaret.

Nonetheless, a Constitutional amendment was necessary, according to the Egerkingen Committee, the promoters of this federal popular initiative. The bill was framed as a preventive strike to stop the “Islamization” of the nation. Western — read “Judeo-Christian” — civilization and women were under the threat of Islam. Thus went the argument.

The majority of the Swiss citizens were convinced of the seriousness of the menace, although most were reluctant to tell the pollsters. They gave credence to the sirens of politicians from the majority right-wing Swiss People’s Party and from the minuscule, yet very active on this issue, Christian-right Federal Democratic Union of Switzerland.

The constitutional ban is a thorn in the flesh of the Swiss government. For a while, the vote appeared to put a stop to inflammatory debates about Islam, and silence seemed the best way to avoid them. But the truce did not last. New preventive strikes were advocated: in September 2013, the Italian-speaking Ticino accepted a popular initiative banning burqas from the public square. This gave ideas to the Egerkingen Committee, which is now planning to take the issue to the federal level by launching a new popular initiative. More disturbing is the initiative that the Swiss People’s Party is about to introduce in Valais, a rural and Catholic canton: the bill would ban the veil from public schools, condemning female students to choose between public education and their religious commitments.

Far from pacifying the public sphere and guarantying “religious peace” among faith communities, as its proponents argued, the ban on minarets turned out to be a first step in a series of discriminatory actions targeting the Muslim minority.

Countering the politics of fear

Book cover of The New Religious Intolerance by Martha C. Nussbaum © Harvard University Press |
Book cover of The New Religious Intolerance by Martha C. Nussbaum © Harvard University Press |

In her fine book, The New Religious Intolerance, moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum discusses the Swiss ban as a case of “politics of fear” spreading across Europe. She examines how the economic and political instability of European societies generated an anxiety that was channeled into a suspicion targeting strangers. The philosopher proposes three democratic practices to counter the fear of the “enemy” at work in these discriminatory politics. First, showing equal respect for all citizens and their religious differences. Second, applying rigorous critical thinking to any temptation of enforcing a double standard (“the mote in my brother’s eye”). Third, displaying “empathy,” or the imaginative capacity to apprehend the world from the point of view of a person sharing another religion or culture (“inner eyes”).

The democratic practices advocated by Nussbaum are sound, but her analysis of the Swiss ban remains too focused on the promoters’ campaign — with its shocking posters showing a Swiss flag covered by minarets that look like missiles and, in the foreground, a women cloaked in a burqa. Had the philosopher paid more attention to the way mainstream media covered the campaign, she would have noticed that their coverage displayed respect for religious differences, critical attention to double standards, and empathy.

The 19:30 is the main thirty-minute French-speaking national television news bulletin, an institution in itself in a country with very few channels, and an excellent place to observe how current affairs are framed. Between October 3 and November 29 2009, thirty reports addressed the minaret campaign for a total of eighty-two minutes. (During the same period, only four reports, amounting to eight minutes, covered another vote issue — the banning of Swiss war material exports.)

A close analysis, reveals that the journalists of the 19:30 tried to give a fair account of both camps. Nonetheless, they opted for a factual and comparative coverage that put the minaret issue in perspective and depicted the Swiss Muslim community in a positive light. Whenever populist politicians announced the impending “Islamization” of Switzerland, the journalist would dispute the claim with a comment drawing on statistics or invite an expert to assess the allegation. The diversity of Swiss Muslim communities was shown (Turkish, Bosniac, etc.) and compared to their European counterparts in France, Great Britain, or Netherlands. Muslim men and women deeply integrated in their neighborhood were invited to explain how they felt about the initiative, and what it meant for them to live in Switzerland.

The media coverage of the 19:30 is not the exception, but the norm of the public discourse during the campaign. All but two political parties were opposed to the ban. None of the higher religious authorities (Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Jewish, etc.) stooped to using their religion to support the discrimination against the Muslim community. The government and the Parliament were aware that the initiative was discriminatory, but rather than invalidating the campaign, they preferred to let a free public debate take place, expecting that it would have “pedagogical” and “civic” effects.

The dark side of monstration

Trusting the virtues of the liberal public sphere, Nussbaum and the Swiss government seem to have overlooked what anthropologist and semiotician Daniel Dayan calls “monstration,” or the “politics of showing,” the fact that “there is always a point to showing something, as he put it in his William Phillips Lecture at The New School for Social Research.” The minaret ban and its outcomes (the burqa or the veil initiatives) display the dark side of monstration. And perhaps sociological analysis could benefit from an insight drawn from literature.

Book cover of Melnitz by Charles Lewinsky © Le Livre de Poche |
Book cover of Melnitz by Charles Lewinsky © Le Livre de Poche |

Melnitz tells the story of a Jewish family living in Switzerland. Novelist Charles Lewinsky depicts the Meijers’ upward social mobility from 1871 to 1945. Despite a flourishing business and ties to the local bourgeoisie, the family will suffer from exclusion and anti-Semitism. The novel describes the mechanism of this stigmatization by considering the events of 1893, as the Swiss citizens were invited to vote on a popular initiative for the first time in their history. The narrator characterizes the issue as a “harmful popular initiative that, under cover of protecting animals, wanted to introduce an anti-Semitic article in the Federal Constitution and ban slaughter according to the Jewish rite.”

The brothers-in-law Janki Meijer and Pin’has Pomerantz are confronted with the campaign. Janki is the rich owner of a retail store. All his life he tried to iron out all sign of Jewishness. Now he is shocked as he notices that his respectable bourgeois “friends” start to pigeonhole him as “the Jew.” Pin’has is a modest and erudite shochet, a person officially certified to kill cattle and poultry according to the Jewish law. He is invited to defend ritual slaughtering in a public debate, opposing him to a Christian butcher, a deceitful advocate of the ban. The debate goes wrong. As Pin’has tries to speak, the mob cries “animal torturer” and silences him. The public sphere does not work here, nor in the case of the Minarets according to a Habermasian ideal of rationality, in which the public only pays attention to the interlocutors’ arguments, and not to their personal or collective identities. To the contrary: attracting public attention towards people as Janki and Pin’has was enough to show them as “Jews” — unwelcome “strangers” — and silence them. Raising the issue of Minarets, marginalized and stigmatized the Muslims of Switzerland.

The parallel between 1893 and 2009 popular initiatives is striking. Both campaigns display populist “entrepreneurs of visibility” exploiting the ideal of a free public sphere to show people as “Jews” and “Muslims,” and hence “strangers,” in order to undo the project of a liberal society where diverse communities could live together despite their differences and their disagreements. The invocation of “free speech” worked as a tragic decoy luring the liberals — fascinated by their self-control in face of the insanities uttered by the reactionaries — into believing that a public debate was taking place, and that rationality would prevail in the end.