BERLIN - The Swiss, known for cheese, the Alps, watches, chocolate and secret bank accounts, at least two of which are full of holes, have now added a sixth important product: intolerance. In the recent election 57.5 percent of those who went to the polls, voted to forbid minarets next to mosques.
As nearly everyone agreed, the minarets themselves were not so important. The 400,000 Muslims living in Switzerland now have only four minarets. Their architecture disturbs almost no one, nor do muezzins call loudly over the rooftops five times a day. The minarets are symbols, and while few who voted for the ban said so openly, many thought "We can't even understand their foreign lingo. Keep ‘em out!"
Several sad ironies are involved. Switzerland has four official languages to begin with, which should breed tolerance, especially since German-speaking Swiss, (and it is they who voted most frequently against the minarets), has a folksy dialect which sounds rather quaint to people in Germany but is so difficult to understand that Swiss films shown there require sub-titles.
Cultural variety is a good thing, intelligent people generally believe, but it involves tolerance toward other people's cultures.
Another irony is more tragic. Christianity is not a constitutional requirement in Switzerland; religious freedom is supposed to be the rule. But it was Swiss authorities determined to keep their country Christian who turned away Jewish refugees from neighboring Germany during the Hitler years, resulting in death to most of them.
This shameful episode, though most other countries at that time were equally guilty, makes the decision by over half of Swiss voters especially disturbing, and not only because it was a victory for the far-right Swiss People's Party. Like cheese and watches, such intolerance promises to be an export whose political effects recall the crippling medical effects of thalidomide (sedative causing birth defects). And far too many in other countries are overly willing to buy this poison.
Among those rejoicing were the Berlusconi backers in Italy. A leader of the government party, Lega Nord, fantasized: "Flying high above a Europe now almost fully Islamized is the flag of courageous Switzerland, which wishes to remain Christian."
The daughter of the old racist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who now heads his National Front in France, expressed her warm satisfaction. Geerd Wilders, the handsome blond and rabid Dutch film maker currently building a party based on Islamophobia, said: "We need a referendum like that in the Netherlands!"
His comrade-in-arms in the Danish People's Party echoed his sentiments. In Austria, England, Spain and elsewhere fanatic nationalists, racists and neo-fascists, both the jackbooted thugs and the suave, elegant wheeler-dealers, welcomed these smoke signals from the Alps. They are extremists, of course, rarely with anything like majorities. But their numbers trend upward.
Many German politicians were undoubtedly horrified. Others, thinking of German history or counting the growing numbers of Muslim voters in urban centers, were careful and quiet. Few were exuberant. But some, while not explicitly approving the referendum results, betrayed their inner thoughts. Referring to Swiss voters, Wolfgang Bosbach, a key leader of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, said: "Their worries must be taken seriously!" He was quickly slapped down, but his message got through even the thickest shaven skulls.
Islamophobia is not unknown in Germany. In one borough of Berlin enraged demonstrations, egged on by a Christian Democratic candidate, opposed building a mosque and modest minaret. Now completed and in use, it causes no troubles to no one.
A menacing rally in Cologne against a new mosque was prevented by a counterdemonstration of almost all parties, unions and religious groups, but its sponsors did manage to form a new local party and win city council seats for their unholy crusade. The list of those warning against the fictional monster of "Islamization, recall the "yellow peril" campaigns on the U.S. west coast, contained a few surprisingly prominent names.
If unemployment figures in Germany grow worse and social assistance is further cut by the new government, part of any angry protests can be misdirected, not against those guilty of the misery, the banks, corporations and politicians obliged to them, indeed, their whole system, but instead, as so often in history, against those who are suffering even more. Eighty years ago it was the Jews who were blamed, discriminated against and then murdered. The Jewish community today, although its size has increased in recent years, is hardly large or conspicuous enough to serve this purpose sufficiently. It is still on the neo-Nazi list, but the main attacks, usually verbal thus far, are directed against Muslim communities, which include about 2 million people of Turkish descent, but also many Kurds, Africans and Arabs from Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and other areas.
This problem for immigrants is clearly international, involving long-lasting pressures of northern and western economies and cultures on those of the south and east. Experience in many countries indicates that large immigrant groups usually can integrate into their host country but the process often lasts two or three generations. Until then their differing appearance and culture, and the results of poverty and oppression, are all too often utilized to prevent unity among poor people and working people.
Even if the referendum vote should be reversed by the Swiss Supreme Court or the European Court of Human Rights, to which all European countries belong, including Switzerland, the 57.5 percent result of those who bothered to vote has done damage to the Swiss reputation for tolerance, while encouraging the most dangerous elements of political life in all of Europe.
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