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NEUTRAL CHILL

How can a country known for some of life’s most reassuring necessities — watches, chocolate, cheese, neutrality, assisted suicide and bank accounts — put up with something as aggressively Other as minarets? This seems to be the logic behind most people in Switzerland wanting, and managing, to push through a ban on the construction of minarets in the country. The Swiss People’s Party (SVP), largest in the parliament, had campaigned for such a ban, urging the people to vote on the issue, as they can in Switzerland. The campaign poster, in the shrillest red and black, has a woman in a burqa ominously standing in the foreground. Behind her is a number of minarets, looking like bayonets, piercing through the Swiss flag. Optimists in the country’s political and religious establishments, together with members of the Swiss business community and civil society, were sure that the referendum would decide against such a ban. But 57 per cent of voters, and 22 out of the 26 cantons, have voted for the ban. There are exactly four minarets in Switzerland, none of which is allowed to broadcast the call for prayers to the 400,000 Muslims who make up 4 per cent of the country’s population. The government has accepted the decision — as it would have to, according to the principles of direct democracy that this officially secular nation upholds. This, then, is the triumph of democracy, of what most people want.

What is most shocking to those who understand and practise democracy as well as secularism along somewhat different lines is the symbolic force of the ban. To most Swiss Muslims, nothing could be a clearer signal of the fact of their being unwanted in their own country, particularly if they chose to make themselves visible. In Switzerland, the minaret stands for what the hijab has become in France — the symbol of a form of oppression and danger, against which enlightened Europe must make a concerted effort to unite. Right-wing and centre-right parties in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands have all supported the ban. What increasingly unites Europe is a fear whose chilling logic finds its clearest — and most ironic — expression in something as unimpeachable as the rule of democracy.

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