Tuesday, December 01, 2009


Sometimes it is almost agonisingly fun to watch the continental Europe suffocate in the extreme conservatism it is headed, from this very island that I stand on. As the colours of parliaments all across the continent started turning black throughout the last decade, some argued that this will only bring about a new wave of reaction to conservative politics in the public opinion, sooner or later. It seems as if the sooner has not happened yet. In deed, the widespread seizure of European politics by its conservative politicians have meant, in the least and in its earliest, stronger tools of manipulation and scare politics. We are now increasingly talking about a Europe that is, once again, betraying its very own 'fundamentals' on issues of human rights, 'democracy', openness and tolerance.

I was driving through the Swiss mountains into Geneva on Sunday night as the results of the referendum on banning construction of new minarets in the country were being released. As it turns out, a double majority (majority of total votes and majority of cantons) voted for the ban. Geneva, along with Neuchatel, Vaud and Basel are the only cantons voted against the ban, with the first 3 all being French speaking cantons. Sadly, Bern had a clear majority for the ban, too. The capital of this very country seems to be living back in the mid-20th century, or shall we say, this is the new century already and we are living in some ancient times now? Us being those who have a problem with the outcome of this referendum.

There is a lot to be discussed about Swiss politics that will go beyond my knowledge, Swiss intellect and will but a double-majority system seems to be highly controversial given cantons like Innen- and Ausser-hoden both count as separate cantons with mere populations of 52654 and 15471 respectively and yet the former has highest rate of ban supporters, the latter seem to have a less clear majority on approval of the ban, and they contribute 2 out of the 23 cantonal votes (although Switzerland has 26 cantons, 6 of them are 'half-cantons' and their votes are counted half-votes).

It is then a good idea to look at what other people have had to say about this whole issue. During the build-up to the referendum, Ulrich Schl├╝er, a member of the rightwing Swiss People's party and one of the leading promoters of the anti-minaret initiative is reported to have said:
"The Islamic religion is intolerant, but we do not want to limit freedom of religion, we want to outlaw the political symbol"
In the same news article, as you scroll down to the comments, you read the following two comments from a Swiss user in Switzerland, and a Pakistani from the US, respectively:

Matilda, Switzerland:
I wonder if these people that are so upset about the outcome of the vote ever experienced how it is like to be a woman in a Muslim country. Have you ever considered, e.g., Pakistani women freedom? That freedom for which many are willing to leave behind friends and family and start a new life abroad. They are trying to escape the mentality of the country, which unfortunately is imposed by religion. What do you want to offer them, the same cage in a different scenery? This is about mentality. I admire Swiss people for having the courage to keep their country theirs, with the freedom they have fought for and gain over centuries.

Columbia University, Pakistan:
I am a Pakistani woman who has lived her entire life with freedom. The claim in one of the comments below about Pakistani women wanting to escape their country in search of freedom is an outright lie - you know NOTHING about our lives! And to clarify, I attended a Christian school despite being a Muslim - that is how tolerant we are in Pakistan about other religions. My parents did not have a problem with me attending a school which had a beautiful church in itself - today, a Swiss would never allow his/her kid to attend a Muslim school! And another fact: Pakistan, a Muslim country, is FULL of CHURCHES! Hindu temples exist everywhere too! AND the white color in our flag REPRESENTS CHRISTIANITY IN PAKISTAN so if you don't know the facts, please refrain from making idiotic, untrue comments. Clearly, my point proves that other Muslim countries welcome and respect other religions. Switzerland is an exception who has now proven to the world that almost 60% of its citizens are intolerant and completely uneducated about Islam and Muslim cultures. Maybe it's time for you to pick up a book and read about it so the next time you open your mouth to attack someone, you know what the hell you're talking about.

As expected, the results of the referendum incited huge criticism from the right and the left of politics across Europe and elsewhere. Some were in the form of criticising the way in which Swiss politics work. I do not necessarily agree with those coming from this point of view. Those who claim referenda have no space in true democracies because the public opinion can be manipulated easily is nothing but fear of public opinion. It is a call for greater legitimisation of representational politics and considering those who support this idea are those who also support high turnout in election polls and believe every single vote should count as one regardless of what social, educational or economical background the voter comes from; it sounds like a hypocritical idea to oppose popular referenda. I do agree though in Switzerland, when you have tens of referenda every year, it is difficult to get a pleasing turnout that represents the opinion of the whole country and it is even more difficult to convince those in larger cities to vote each time despite their voting ballots are mailed to their homes. What is the ideal way, I do not yet know, and have not heard any convincing proposals.

Much criticism came naturally from the Muslim world. 'The 2009 Davos Hero', Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan called
the vote a "sign of an increasing racist and fascist stance in Europe". He is joined by the Iran's Al-Vefagh and Jordan's Al-Dustur newspapers in terms of his tone, but those like the Egyptian Al-Akhbar and Palestinan Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah raise a different issue that is usually overlooked by those in row of harsh criticism towards the west. That is precisely what I usually think is the biggest and the most cynical mistake that is being made: Implementing and understanding on the 'other' through a discourse that barely does justice in your own territory. That is euro-centricism/occidentalism on the orient and more. European conservatism has long been headed this way.

Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf "sought to reassure Swiss Muslims, saying the decision was 'not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture'". This is only short of what some other people in other European countries have been bold enough to say: "We do not want you, and if you are not happy, go home":
  • In an October session of the famous BBC broadcast, Question Time, the head of the British National Party, Nick Griffin claimed that all non-white-English-origin should leave the country. When confronted by a Pakistani-origin British citizen who has lived all his life in Britain about whether he should leave the country he loves, Griffin somehow decided that he could stay.

  • Not surprisingly, a big go-home sayer, the leader of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, has welcomed the ban and called for suit in his home countryconcerns over the arrival of the racist politician. before taking off for a controversial diplomatic visit to Turkey that has already raised
  • Denmark joined the generous host countries that are paying its immigrants to go back home. The coalition partners, Danish People's Party secured an agreement to pay 'anti-social' foreigners 100,000 Danish Kroners in bonus if they accept to leave Denmark. I remember my Danish Politics course during my exchange year in Aarhus and how proud the Scandinavians were (maybe Swedes more so) in setting an example of how well their immigrants are integrated and they did not have to go through the troubles the Germans have been going through in the last couple of decades.
Is it then all about the money? Are the Swiss more and more worried about sharing their welfare with 'those Muslims' who do not belong in this isolated land mass? Daniel Cohn-Bendit from the Green Group at the European Parliament suggests the wealthy Muslim stakeholders to withdraw their money from Switzerland. Fed up with the lack of co-operation by the Swiss Cohn-Bendit blames the egotism of the Swiss who 'turned down those who fled the Nazis from their own borders during the 2nd World War', and who would 'only understand the consequences of their guilt only if they see the economic sanctions brought with it'. A good one to put us back into perspective, those who enjoy rather lax migration policies here on the island:

The UK has had a long tradition of imperialism and built its wealth on trading end-products cheaply produced with the cheap raw materials accumulated from its colonies. Post-imperial Britain relied on the cheap and qualified labour force brought into the island with open-door immigration policies, who would then supply the necessary infrastructure for its service-based economy. Are we about to see the major shifts taking place in continental Europe to find its way here as well?

Later on in the debate at the Question Time (mentioned earlier), the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw almost succumbed to the pressure by other guests and the audience on the immigration policies of the Labour Party in the last decade and the rising concern over an Islamic take-over of many neighbourhoods across Britain. He tried to get away by claiming that the Labour Party's immigration policies were right, at best, somewhat miscalculated, and that they would not even think of applying a cap limit to the number of immigrants allowed into the country each year. This was not welcome by many in the audience there. With the general elections in the UK fast approaching, it may as well not be so much more fun to sit here and watch the new episodes unravel on immigration policies as well as to see how Europe cope with what it once built its great pride on. After all, one wonders how much are each of these 'values' worth?