I haven't been following Swiss politics, so the headline on top of page A6 of Monday's New York Times, "Swiss Ban Building of Minarets on Mosques," was surprising, as was the lengthy (800+ words) article:
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 ban was supported by 57.5 of Swiss voters, and will be enacted into law within a year or so.
Is Switzerland is being overrun by minarets (which are the tall spires attached to Islamic mosques) or Muslim extremists? Not really.
Of 150 mosques or prayer rooms in Switzerland, only 4 have minarets, and only 2 more minarets are planned. None conduct the call to prayer. There are about 400,000 Muslims in a population of some 7.5 million people. Close to 90 percent of Muslims in Switzerland are from Kosovo and Turkey, and most do not adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with conservative Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, said Manon Schick, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International in Switzerland.
Government leaders said the ban was not a rejection of Muslims, their faith or their culture. It was beyond the ability of Times reporters Nick Cumming-Bruce (in Geneva) and Steven Erlanger (in Paris) to see how many people believed this, but the Muslims quoted by the reporters were understandably skeptical.
I read this article after flying through Mohsin Hamid's bestseller, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, over Thanksgiving weekend. This brief but compelling novel gives readers a front row seat to the tensions that lie deep at the heart of Muslims' experience in the West. I wonder how much this powerful book colored my reading of the story.
The article quoted opponents of the ban, while a supporter's quote came from a televised debate held prior to the vote. The article also referred to "deep-rooted fears that Muslim immigration would lead to an erosion of Swiss values."
The print version of the article described--but did not reproduce--the campaign poster pictured above, which is a masterpiece of visual propaganda as striking as the Goldwater "daisy" ad. Seven black minarets (or are those missiles?) dominate the Swiss flag. Then there's the woman, covered from head to toe in a burqa. All we can see is her eyes, and what eyes they are: both seductive and frightful! The Swiss ban doesn't address Muslim clothing, which has been a hot-button issue in neighboring France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy declared last summer that full veils and face coverings were "not welcome" on French soil.
Curiously, the online version of the Times story did not feature the poster but instead linked to an online story from The Sunday Times of London that featured a version of the poster's imagery.
People around the world will be watching to see how this controversial story develops, both within Switzerland and in the broader European context, where it may lead to conflicts with agreements on human and religious rights.
Meanwhile, kudos to these Times reporters for a thorough story on a complex issue.