By Mathieu von Rohr
The vote will undoubtedly change the image of Switzerland abroad. The country likes to present itself as a neutral guardian of human rights. It is the country where the Red Cross was established and the Geneva Convention was passed. But now the supposed model democracy has violated the human right of freedom of religion and has discriminated against a group solely on the basis of their religion.
The ban will have serious consequences. It will not eliminate immigration-related problems in Switzerland, but it will produce major problems for Switzerland in its international relations. The Swiss banks and the Swiss economy, which have close ties with economies around the world, including in the Arab world, will suffer as a result. There may also be damage to the tourism industry.
The ban will damage Switzerland's credibility as a mediator in the eyes of Muslim countries, whether it be as a diplomatic representative of the US in Iran or in the conflict between Armenia and Turkey. And finally it will cause massive damage to the relationship between the Swiss and the Muslims living in the country, promoting exactly that isolation from the rest of society which the initiative was supposedly intended to address.
The problems for Switzerland don't end there. The last year has been a difficult one for the country as economic superpowers blasted Bern for protecting tax dodgers, the result being a significant retreat from the country's almost mythical banking secrecy rules. In addition, Switzerland's largest bank, UBS, almost fell victim to the financial crisis and was further damaged by allegations of illegal activities. Even the arrest of star director Roman Polanski in Zurich generated the kind of publicity many in Switzerland would rather avoid. The fact that Swiss citizens are now discriminating against a religion in a manner that violates human rights will further damage the country's reputation.
Still, it is likely that minarets will continue to be built in Switzerland. The European Court of Human Rights is sure to take on the case, with most legal experts seeing a violation of freedom of religion and a clear-cut case of discrimination. Nevertheless, the damage has been done.
Concern about growing numbers of Muslims and the visibility of Islam isn't, of course, just limited to Switzerland. Both Cologne and Copenhagen have seen minaret debates of their own, the burqa is an issue in France and anti-Muslim politicians have had great success in Holland. So far, centrist politicians across the continent have failed to find an adequate response to the growing concern.
As such, it would be inaccurate to explain away the Swiss referendum results by merely pointing to xenophobia in the country. It is also an expression of the failures of the liberal political elite to adequately address the issue and to find solutions to the real and perceived problems with Muslim immigrants.
It is an issue that clearly concerns a large portion of the Swiss population; it would be a major misstep to allow right-wing populists to control the debate. Otherwise, extreme measures, like bans on minarets, can be expected to increase -- in Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe.
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