Jonathan Tremblay: Switzerland Bans New Islamic Structures: The Long-Standing Myth of Swiss Neutrality

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Tremblay is a Historian and Breaking News Editor at the History News Network]

The people of Switzerland have voted and passed a law banning the construction of new minaret towers or the domed tower above mosques from which Muslims call for prayer. By a majority of 57%, the law has been deplored internationally as stemming from a reactionary fear towards Islamic fundamentalism. Supporters of the measure however claim that it is a first step in curbing Muslim tendencies towards “an ideology and legal system – Sharia law – which are incompatible with Swiss democracy.” One thing is for certain, this law, passed in Switzerland of all places, has gained worldwide attention for its novelty and fringe-racist motivations. Harmless, pacifist and neutral have all been used to describe the isolated nation atop the Alps but increasingly right-wing governments have been voted in as extremism takes a greater hold of the misunderstood and “most democratic nation on earth”.

Since the adoption of a new constitution in 1848, Switzerland has been one of the most stable nation-states of recent memory. One might think that it largely operates as does its European neighbours but Swiss governance is quite unique. A direct or semi-direct democracy is what it has been called and indeed the Swiss sovereign is the people. For any change whatsoever to their constitution, a full referendum is mandatory. Furthermore, anyone and everyone of Swiss citizenship has the right to gather 50,000 signatures to appeal a current law or 100,000 to propose a new one. With the amount of signatures satisfied, as with the case of the minarets, a referendum is organised and a simple majority decides if and how the Swiss rewrite their own constitution.

At the head of the country exists a parliament of representatives yet the “presidency” as we know the concept is not a single man but a federal council of 7. Split amongst the 4 greatest parties in the cantons (Swiss states), these seven positions effectively give them certain executive power but definitely not much more than every citizen in the country possess. At first, it seems that it is the most perfect and democratic system ever thought up of. In practise however, indecision, reactionary voting and a certain dictatorship of the people have made Switzerland’s path through the 20th century a curious and worrisome one.

A harmless reputation

With a touch of irony and sarcasm, Douglas Adams described humanity as “mostly harmless” in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Switzerland’s ideological leaning have accordingly been misleadingly simple when seen from the outside.

Through the World Wars, the Swiss people were directly responsible for sending their men to war. As such, the people rather voted to not go die in war... The United States had privileged isolationism all the way to 1917 but finally admitted that a World War could disrupt life as we know it in an increasingly international system of trade and relations. The Swiss Federal council on the other hand could certainly propose long-term courses of action but the direct-democracy mostly functioned out of passion, fear, love and hatred; it functioned of extremes. As such, WW2 also saw the rise of Swiss fascism and supporters of Hitler and Mussolini. In a country with seemingly no ultimate rules or morality, Switzerland could have conceivably turned pro-Nazi and believed it was right for them. Thankfully, the discovery of concentration camps made a fascist option unpopular (not wrong) to the Swiss and the fascist ideology retreated for a while.

By the 1970s and 80s, several right-wing extremist and moderate groups began to coalesce into a more organised and goal-oriented mass. The fascists, skinheads, Christian ultraconservatives and neo-Nazis, among others, joined into the SVP or Swiss people’s party. It had largely been a conservative worker’s party from 1919 until then but slowly began to gain popularity through right-wing fear-mongering and a rhetoric that greatly appealed to the reactionary votes of the Swiss people.

By the 1990s, the SVP was amongst the four top parties in the country and held a stable seat on the council of 7. They intelligently never encouraged direct violence against their ideological opponents but nevertheless pushed for more strict anti-immigration policy. They also proposed successful legislation to restrict all health care to immigrants, rejected international law on all matters, successfully pushed for non-involvement in international organizations and conflicts that do not concern Swiss interests (which includes joining NATO or the European Union) and continue to speak out against imposed environmentalism and anti-racism laws, both of which infringe on freedom of speech.

As has been described above, Switzerland is a direct democracy and if this fringe group was as extreme and undesirable as other countries might see it, they would simply be phased out of government by citizen-initiated referendum. Instead, through the 1990s and 2000s, the SVP has come to hold 30% of the electorate and parliamentary seats as well as a second seat on the council of 7. The right-wing racist* party that is little spoken of outside the country has effectively represented the Swiss people for over a decade.

*Certain high-ranking members of the SVP have actually been convicted under the above-mentioned anti-racist laws.

Neutrality or Stagnation?

As a result, incidents of racism and racially-motivated violence have greatly increased in Switzerland. Furthermore, there has been a ten-fold increase in active membership in neo-Nazi groups around the country (although the total amount remains well under 1% of the population). This recent referendum on the ban of new Islamic structures (initiated by the leader of the SVP) also caused a dramatic increase in violence towards the 400,000 Muslims of Switzerland.

I suggest we be wary of the Swiss and their direct democracy. With a lack of long-term vision, with stubborn isolationist policies preventing international relations and with a constitution that could eventually be made to include anything no matter how repugnant to the rest of us, Switzerland may not be the the nexus of peace and prosperity they pretend to be for very long. What can be seen as a long history of neutrality in favour of self-preservation has actually been a century-and-a-half of stagnating policy never allowed to collectively push the Swiss people in a single direction.

Although it may not be the most appropriate example for the context at hand, I conclude with a quote from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini on the merits of fascist dictatorship over democracy: “It is not because a majority of people agree on something that it is necessarily right.”

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