While direct democracy is an enticing concept, it is always troubling when the fate of minorities is left to the decision of the majority - think recent voter initiatives on gay marriage in several US states. Here is another, from Switzerland, the directest democracy in today's world.
GENEVA — In a vote that displayed a widespread anxiety about Islam and undermined the country’s reputation for religious tolerance, the Swiss on Sunday overwhelmingly imposed a national ban on the construction of minarets, the prayer towers of mosques, in a referendum drawn up by the far right and opposed by the government.
The referendum, which passed with a clear majority of 57.5 percent of the voters and in 22 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, was a victory for the right. The vote against was 42.5 percent. Because the ban gained a majority of votes and passed in a majority of the cantons, it will be added to the Constitution.
The Swiss Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the rightist Swiss People’s Party, or S.V.P., and a small religious party had proposed inserting a single sentence banning the construction of minarets, leading to the referendum.
The Swiss government said it would respect the vote and sought to reassure the Muslim population — mostly immigrants from other parts of Europe, like Kosovo and Turkey — that the minaret ban was “not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture.”
Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, the justice minister, said the result “reflects fears among the population of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies.”
Is putting the kibosh on minaret building in any way comparable to the head scarf ban in France? The French threw in all conspicuous religious symbols in the mix to deflect attention from the fact that Muslim head scarves were probably the only real target. So, what were the Swiss thinking? That allowing Islamic architectural symbols will gradually lead to the spread of the Islamic dress code, demand for Sharia laws and if not granted, to domestic terrorism in pristine Heidiland? I don't know. But it sure appears that the propaganda of the rightist Swiss People’s Party, or S.V.P. may have led voters to fear just that. My two years stay in northern Germany taught me the extent to which the Teutonic races worship and enforce uniformity and order. I was wondering if the Swiss are merely objecting to the aesthetics of culturally alien structures among the Alpine landscape. But the right wing poster depicting minarets as missiles tells a different story, more like the Danish cartoon showing Prophet Mohammed with a bomb ticking in his turban.
On the other hand, in today's virulent "sauce for the goose and the gander" style global religious tensions, here is a similar story from a different part of the world (link: Louise Gordon). I want to know how many Islamic countries (granted, most are not democracies) allow the building or the exhibition of non-Islamic symbols, icons or architecture? Forget Saudi Arabia, Iran and other theocratic / totalitarian Islamic nations. Malaysia is supposedly a democracy. So is Pakistan. At least, they have parliamentary elections. I know they tolerate Christian churches somewhat grudgingly although bombing them from time to time is commonplace in Pakistan. But can one easily (or at all) build a Hindu/ Buddhist / Sikh / Jewish temple in Pakistan today? I would like to know. What about in Malaysia, Egypt, Iraq or Turkey?