At first glance, the ominous poster made by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) seemed to me to be depicting a burqa-clad woman standing in front of a stockpile of missiles. The starkly dubious message being: Stop Islamic Fundamentalism. After reading the accompanying article on Al Jazeera (and than many, many more elsewhere), the poster took on a new meaning: This is what Islamophobia looks like.
I do not claim to know the intricacies of Switzerland’s history; however, this ban comes across as a thinly veiled tool intended to force assimilation on the 400,000 Muslims who reside in the country, a minority comprising just 5% of the population. The SVP, which has a history of advocating for anti-immigrant initiatives, has made statements calling minarets a symbol of Islamic political influence that could undermine the nation’s so-called Christian values and democracy, arguing that minarets are the start of a slippery slope toward the implementation of Sharia law. These types of combative tactics toward social integration only serve to further stigmatize and already marginalized group and many Swiss citizens–including Christians and Jews–have condemned the ban and say they fear it will increase the anti-Islamic sentiment that is already present in the country. Indeed, since the referendum was introduced the mosque in Geneva has been vandalized three times.
Despite synagogues, churches, and other groups joining together to advocate against the SVP’s proposal; the posters being barred from at least three Swiss cities; and opinion polls predicting the ban’s defeat, 57% of voters ultimately endorsed the referendum. The Swiss government, media, and businesses swiftly responded by condemning the ban and assuring members of the Muslim community that its passage is not a rejection of their religion or culture–a statement that feels a lot like lip service to me. In spite of its stated embarrassment, the Swiss government vowed to respect the majority-approved decision, proof that democracy doesn’t necessarily bring equality.
From a feminist perspective, the fact that women were more likely to support the ban than men is troubling to me. American feminists have long been accused (and rightfully so) of exploiting the image of the helplessly oppressed Muslim woman (demonstrated in this campaign through the visual strategy of using a niqabi woman on the SVP poster and its invocation of Sharia Law as scare tactics) to justify anti-Islamic ideologies and actions, and with this referendum, Swiss women are falling victim to the same (ir)rationalizations. A teacher named Tatiana said she would vote for the minaret ban because she could “no longer bear being mistreated and terrorized by boys who believe women are worthless.” In her eyes Islam is equated with women’s oppression, an equation with which many Muslim feminists would beg to differ, and feminist concerns trump multiculturalism–a convenient position for someone who occupies a position in the dominant culture to take.
“If we give them a minaret, they’ll have us all wearing burqas,” housewife Julia Werner told Times Online. “Before you know it, we’ll have Sharia law and women being stoned to death in our streets. We won’t be Swiss any more.” The last part of Julia’s statement is telling, as the implication is that the Islamic faith is not a part of Swiss national identity–an obvious statement of exclusion.
International leaders have already pushed back by telling the Swiss government that this change to its constitution violates guarantees of religious freedom it agreed to in the European Human Rights Convention. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner urged Switzerland to reverse the decision quickly, saying, “If you are not allowed to build minarets, that means that religion is being oppressed.” Let’s hope pressure at home and abroad will lead to an overturning of this decision.