The Swiss aren't neutral anymore

Recent referendum banning minarets shocks many

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Switzerland has long been known for its neutrality, but the attitude Swiss citizens have recently taken toward Muslims is calling into question its non-partisan reputation. On November 29 Swiss voters chose to ban all minarets in Switzerland. Minarets are the tall spires connected to some mosques and are used by the mosque's leader to call Muslims to prayer. Fifty-seven per cent of those who voted in the referendum chose to ban any more minarets being built.

Fifty-seven per cent is enough to be considered a landslide win in any referendum, so now people are wondering how such a vote came about in the first place, and why it was put through with such enthusiasm by a Western European nation. The Swiss voting system is unique in some ways: a significantly higher number of issues are put to referendum, where in most other countries referenda are seldom used to settle issues. Canada, for instance, has only had three: on prohibition in 1898, on conscription in 1944 and regarding constitutional change in 1992.

The voting system is one factor to consider, but it's much more important to understand the perception that many Europeans have of immigrant Muslims. Canada has one of the highest immigrant acceptance rates in the world and the understanding of what it means to be Canadian is a fluid concept. In most countries in Europe -- including Switzerland -- the influx of millions of Muslims over the last decade has strained the tolerance levels of the prior residents. Citizens are worried that their cultural values are being eroded; on top of the growing enmity toward Muslims is the fear that the extreme Islamic groups who blow up buildings (and themselves) are representative of the entire Islamic faith.

Sympathy isn't completely deserved, however. In spite of the atrocities that have occurred in Europe (like the metro bombings in London) and that have been carried out in response to European events (like the publication of the cartoons that appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten), there has been a lack of outrage from Muslim communities trying to prove their religion can indeed be peaceful. The European mentality has been disappointed to see so much support for terrorist events, instead of condemnation.

In spite of this, there are some obvious factors that need to be spelled out. First, the freedom which liberal democracies give to practice one's religion (or to practice no religion) is a significant accomplishment in the history of humanity. We often forget how delicate the right is and so feel justified in limiting religions we don't agree with. Don't confuse this with giving respect for other religions -- freedom of speech is another precious right and included in that is the right to criticise other views. Respect means taking views seriously and the people who worry about the radical forms of Islam are justified in their view. That's why "Islamophobia" is a stupid word. A phobia is an irrational fear, but there are many good reasons to worry about the spread of radical Islamic doctrine.

Because the freedom of religion is so valuable, placing unnecessary restrictions upon those who wish to practice different versions of it is simply something that must be avoided. There's nothing that justifies banning towers from being built, nor is it the case that banning them will accomplish any of the outcomes desired by Swiss voters. If anything, it will add fuel to a people who have been extirpated from their original country and then rejected by the place they ended up in.

But the deeper issue is why decisions regarding human rights should be put to popular vote. Democracy is not supposed to be the tyranny of the majority and there is no better way to spread tyranny than by allowing the majority to decide what is permissible in their country. As long as the minority opinion causes no harm, it should be allowed. The Swiss ban of minarets is democracy gone wrong, as are the votes in California and Maine that have opposed same-sex marriage. The burden of proof should be on those who wish to restrict freedoms to show where harm is being caused.