The Magazine

No Minarets, Please

We're Swiss.

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, the Swiss justice minister, took to the airwaves as soon as her fellow citizens voted by a landslide majority to write a ban on minarets into their constitution. She wanted to make clear to the world that this was "not a vote against Islam." Her government issued a press release to that effect in Arabic.

The best piece of evidence that this was indeed a vote against Islam is that those who supported a "Yes" vote were not willing to avow it. "Yes" took 58 percent of the vote on November 29. But no poll in the weeks leading up to the vote found more than 37 percent of the public willing to say so. French Switzerland (including Geneva) rejected the constitutional ban; German Switzerland (including Zurich) voted for it.

No one suspected (or wanted to believe) that the low poll numbers reflected anything other than the smallness of the problem. Switzerland has lots of immigrants, but they are mostly tax exiles and rich retirees. Its Muslim population of 400,000--just over 5 percent of a country of 7.7 million--is not by Western European standards large. Switzerland has about 150 mosques but only four minarets, with two more in the works. The sort of social dislocation that has led elsewhere to strife between natives and immigrants is absent: Switzerland's unemployment rate, even now, is under 5 percent. It has not had a major terrorist incident.

But there is a more pessimistic way of looking at all of these things. That 20th of the Swiss population that professes Islam came primarily from the Balkan countries during the wars of the early 1990s--the Muslim presence in Switzerland until then was negligible. Should this population grow at its present rate for another half a generation, Switzerland will have Muslim minorities on the scale of Belgium's or France's. While the unemployment rate is low, it is growing, and four-fifths of the new claimants for benefits in October hold foreign passports, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

People should have realized what a tinderbox this outwardly calm country was, especially considering the overwhelming popularity of the Swiss People's party (SVP), which is highly skeptical of (and blunt to the point of rudeness about) immigration. A 2007 campaign poster urging the extradition of criminal foreigners brought condemnations for racism and caught the world's attention. The world was less attentive to the elections' result--it gave the SVP almost a third of the seats in the federal council, making it the mightiest political party the country has seen since the close of World War I.

Meanwhile, the Swiss are being asked, in many ways, to discard their national identity and content themselves with a new one. Part of the problem is banking. In recent years, Switzerland has eliminated almost every vestige of its banking secrecy, mostly as a result of U.S.-related complaints. Washington insisted on openness for a number of reasons: terrorist accounts, class-war rhetoric from U.S. politicians about Benedict Arnold billionaires, and a massive tax fraud case against the Swiss giant UBS.

But a bigger role in Switzerland's discomfiture has been played by -Tripoli. The Swiss import over 40,000 barrels of Libyan oil each day, and Muammar Qaddafi is seldom out of the Swiss news these days. Britain, of course, suffered a great loss of face last summer when it released the Lockerbie terrorist Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, probably in exchange for business considerations. But that humiliation is as nothing compared to what Switzerland has undergone.

In the summer of 2008, Qaddafi's son Hannibal was arrested in a luxury hotel in Geneva for beating two of his servants. This sort of thing has happened to him on many occasions in many European capitals. (In 2005, he pulled a 9mm machine pistol on gendarmes at the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris.) Usually, Libya claims diplomatic immunity and works to spring their man through behind-the-scenes negotiation, and that is exactly what happened in the Geneva case. Unfortunately, Hannibal spent 36 hours in jail before it did. His family vowed "an eye for an eye." Libya briefly stopped shipments of oil and arrested--or took hostage, if you want to put it less euphemistically--two Swiss businessmen who happened to be in Tripoli. The price of their release, it was made clear, would be an apology from the Swiss government. So in August, Hans-Rudolf Merz, the Swiss equivalent of a prime minister, flew to Libya to apologize for "the unjust arrest of Libyan diplomats by Geneva police," signed a written agreement to appoint a neutral arbitrator, and did not rule out arresting the police officers who had arrested Hannibal. At that point, Qaddafi put him back on the plane without the hostages.