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Editorial

Swiss ban on minarets is pure discrimination

Sunday's referendum is a reminder that cultural anxieties can be inflamed even in the most tolerant country.

December 02, 2009

Integrating Islamic immigrants has proved to be a multifaceted challenge for European nations unaccustomed to religious and cultural diversity. But there's nothing complicated about the decision of voters in Switzerland to prohibit further construction of minarets. It's religious discrimination pure and simple.

Sunday's referendum, in which 57.5% of voters approved the ban on minarets -- a traditional feature of mosques -- is a reminder that cultural anxieties can be inflamed even in the most tolerant country. (It also demonstrates the fact, well known to Californians, that direct democracy can burden a society with measures that wouldn't have survived the deliberateness of the legislative process.) One of the referendum's architects called the minaret "a political symbol against integration . . . a symbol to try to introduce Sharia [Islamic] law parallel to Swiss rights." It would be just as accurate to say that the Christian cross is a symbol of the Spanish Inquisition or the violence committed by Crusaders against Muslims. It's also perverse to complain that Muslims are unwilling to embrace the larger society and then make acceptance of second-class status the price of their assimilation.

Although it was a mere pretext for the Swiss referendum, Islamic fundamentalism -- which sometimes takes the form of a call for the Islamization of Europe -- does pose problems for European democracies that Americans sometimes fail to appreciate. Partly that is because U.S. Muslims are better assimilated and less alienated than their European counterparts. From the U.S. perspective, a French law that prohibited girls from wearing Muslim headscarves in state schools could be motivated only by an unreasoning antipathy to Islam, and the Bush administration criticized the ban as an interference with the practice of religion. Unease about Islam may have driven the ban, but so did fears that headscarves would undermine the long-standing secular ethos of French public education. In the end, the law also prohibited the wearing of conspicuous Jewish and Christian symbols.

The Swiss ban, by contrast, targets only one religion and suppresses religious expression not in government schools but at places of worship. Saying that Muslims may construct a mosque but not advertise its purpose with a minaret is the equivalent of forcing Christians to construct churches without crosses. The comparison won't be lost on Muslim governments that stifle the expression of Christianity. Why should Saudi Arabia allow Christians to worship openly if a supposed paragon of pluralism such as Switzerland requires Muslims to efface their identity?

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