The Swiss voted to ban the construction of new minarets -- against all expectations and although their government and most political parties had rejected a ban. But this referendum had, in truth, little to do with minarets.
The surprising vote reveals rather a growing unease in Switzerland, which traditionally has been one of the most open and most tolerant countries of the continent: Many Swiss are worried about the rise of political Islam and religious rules in Europe that are threatening hard-won rights such as equal rights for women and men, the secular rule of law above religion or the right of each individual to decide for him -- or herself.
A majority of Swiss voters obviously feels that there are problems with Muslim integration into civil society at the moment. This vague sentiment was fueled by a number of incidents over the last years: The former Imam of a mosque in Geneva, Hani Ramadan, a Swiss citizen by the way, publicly justified the stoning of adulterers or the punitive amputation of the hand of a thief. Muslim parents prevented their daughters from attending swimming classes, gymnastics or summer camps in public schools because they didn't want their girls to be together with boys. Media reports about forced marriages, female genital mutilations and "honor killings" of Muslim women - all confirmed by authorities or in court -- came as a shocking surprise. A university professor even went as far as to suggest in an official publication of a federal commission to introduce elements of the Sharia, the Muslim legal system, into Switzerland.
The nationalist and conservative Swiss People's Party knew to take advantage of the wide-spread feeling that the government, the courts and the politicians do too little to defend Western values and basic rights. The party warned -- highly exaggerated -- of a "creeping islamization" of Switzerland. It skillfully chose the question of minarets as a very symbolic target and demanded a ban for the construction of new ones. As it is possible in Switzerland for everyone, the party collected 100,000 signatures within 18 months from eligible voters supporting the motion to force a referendum. A clear majority of 57.5 percent of the Swiss population and 22 out of 26 cantons (states) favored the ban.
It would be utterly wrong -- and dangerous -- to think that this was primarily a racist vote. I'm convinced that the post-electoral analysis will show that a significant part of the (anti-racist) left and an overwhelming majority of the women supported the ban -- not because they are afraid of minarets, but because they are worried about the role (some would say: about the oppression) of women in Islamic societies and about the role of religion in public life. This is, in my opinion, an entirely legitimate discussion that we have to have and must not suppress.
Switzerland is a good place to start with it. You hardly find a more "multicultural", open and globalized country in the Western hemisphere. The small, landlocked country in the middle of Europe has 7.7 million inhabitants, 1.7 million (or 22 percent) of which are foreigners. There are an estimated 400,000 to 450,000 Muslims living in Switzerland -- almost three times as many as twenty years ago (1990: 152'000). Islam is today the second largest religion after Christianity with roughly 150 mosques all over the country.
To not be misunderstood: The ban of minarets will not solve one problem of Muslim integration. But the referendum gave the Swiss people the chance to express their opinion that it is not moving into a good direction at the moment. Their vote turned out to be sort of a wake up call to politicians and judges to take their worries seriously. The result of the vote, as uncomfortable and even embarrassing as it may come to many in Switzerland, will be a more open and hence a more sincere and productive debate about Muslim integration. This is, thanks to Switzerland's form of direct democracy, the positive side of the vote.
Daniel Ammann is a Swiss based journalist and the author of The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich. St. Martin's Press