Graham Murray writes from Switzerland as the country votes to ban the building of minarets.
I’m sitting in a café in Geneva at 8.30am on ‘the morning after’, which seems like an appropriate expression given yesterday’s events. While I write this, the radio news comes on and refers to ‘the shock’. Everyone took it for granted that opponents of the ban would outnumber the ‘yes’ camp. And now Switzerland is in shock.
The French-speaking cantons of Geneva, Vaud and Neuchâtel voted against what they call here ‘the initiative against the building of minarets’. Then again, ‘Suisse Romande’ also has cantons which voted in favour of the ban on the construction of new minarets: Fribourg (55.9%), Valais (58%) and Jura (51.2%).
The headline of the French-language Le Temps conjures up the image of Switzerland being hit by a baseball bat. The establishment is clearly in shock, having trusted the opinion poll projections of a victory for the opponents of the ‘initiative’. The federal government is already talking of damage limitation, not within Switzerland, but with the Muslim world which pumps a lot of money into this country and imports its produce. Anyone who has visited Geneva in the summer will be aware of the importance of Gulf Arabs to the city’s economy. A Saudi prince has a holiday home in the canton (Geneva is a city and a canton), the city’s luxury hotels bend over backwards to cater to their Arab clients’ needs – the five-star President Wilson hotel has a Lebanese restaurant and oriental decor, not to mention Arabic incense wafting through the foyer. Geneva’s jewellery shops make a decent profit thanks to their Arab customers. And then there’s the restaurants, tea rooms, department stores etc. You may not find all of Nestle’s products in France, but you’ll have no problem finding them in many Arab countries. So what worries the establishment and big business is the economic impact of the result. Had the government had the intelligence to ban the disgusting campaign poster which portrayed minarets as missiles piercing the Swiss flag alongside the obligatory sinister-looking woman in a chador, we might not be here today.
The Dutch extreme Right has sent a message of congratulation to the victors, and French radio reported this morning that members of Sarkozy’s UMP party have already reacted to the Swiss referendum outcome by declaring that minarets are not a necessary architectural aspect of mosques.
The editorial of Le Temps is entitled ‘Fear and Ignorance’ and a member of the Swiss Federal Government, Evelyne Widmer-Schlumpf is quoted as saying that the referendum result is ‘the expression of fear among the population about Islamic extremist movements’.
The local and largely working class Muslims who frequent Geneva’s mosque know about fear. The mosque was vandalised on at least two occasions in the run-up to the vote and these hard-working Muslims, some of whom probably clean the floors of the President Wilson Hotel, live in fear of further attacks by Swiss extremist movements.