Last week, the Swiss public voted to disallow minarets — iconic, onion-shaped mosque spires — in a national referendum. There are four in Switzerland today; each will remain standing, though no others will be allowed.
The plebiscite adds an amendment to the constitution that cannot be reviewed by the judiciary. It is, quite simply, a disconcerting moment for all that subscribe to the values of the French Revolution. Turnout for the referendum was close to 55 percent; the measure passed with 57 percent of the vote, almost identical, bizarrely, to the percentage that approved gay marriage by the same process in 2005.
The ban, condemned by the U.N. and heads of state around the world, is a reminder of the tension between immigrant Muslims and European society at large: Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, caused an considerable uproar in 2006 when he suggested women abandon the dress, further heightened when he admitted to having asked women in meetings in his constituency to remove their veils. Just this year, Nicolas Sarkozy announced at a historic speech in Versailles — the first by a French head of state in 150 years — that the burqa was unwelcome in France. His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, famously banned all religious dress from public schools in 2004.
The Swiss proposal was brought forward by the Swiss People's party. Expectedly, it is a right-wing movement that, without question, overestimates the threat of Muslim immigration, suggesting that the country might one day become an "Islamic nation." The referendum was taken to the public after the party assembled 100,000 supporting signatures.
The incident speaks to a broader, more difficult debate that goes beyond old Europe's more fascist tendencies. It pits one culture's insistence on integration against the desire to retain foreign customs. Must there be a tension between being French and Muslim, though? Between Englishness and piety?
Doesn't the Swiss decision demand that we ask in retort: What if crucifixes raised alongside churches had been banned, rather than something more alien to our own custom? What if it had been the Star of David, or simply another form of religious dress — perhaps the yarmulke, or shrouding black suits, glasses, top hats and full beards — that came under assault?
To look from another angle: What if it had been the symbol of the Church of Scientology that had been banned, or the swastika that had been made illegal? Both, after all, are widely considered unconstitutional in Germany — depicting the swastika, of course, banned outright.
President Obama, speaking about the coming surge of troops in Afghanistan Wednesday night, wisely told the American public: "Finally, we must draw on the strength of our values — for the challenges that we face may have changed, but the things that we believe in must not. That is why we must promote our values by living them at home."
The prohibition of icons is dangerous territory; it's a world of nuance in which good motives can be hijacked rather quickly. Where moral certainty should never be trusted. It is not, I'm forced to submit, enshrined anywhere in our own, or in Swiss, values.
Brian Till, one of the nation's youngest syndicated columnists, is a research associate for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. He can be contacted at [email protected] To find out more about the author and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.