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Religion and Society

The Swiss No to the Minarets: a Wake-up Slap for Europe, a Challenge to Be Confronted to Build the Society of the Future

The results of the Swiss referendum of 29th November have stirred an earthquake, and not just in Switzerland.


While some people rejoiced for the unexpected “yes” of 57% of the votes in favour of banning the construction of new minarets, others stood in bewilderment. How come such reaction from a Country long characterized by the presence in its bosom of different religions, nations, traditions and languages? How could such a tolerant (if tendentially introverted) Country introduce in its Constitution an article which not only challenges religious freedom but also risks triggering a dangerous internal conflict?



Time will be required to exhaustively answer these questions.


First of all, however, it is important to point out that the referendum topic did not relate to the building of mosques in Switzerland (the Country counts over 160) but that of minarets, considered a symbol of Muslim power and antagonized as such by the referendum’s supporters.


All those who fear that Switzerland may lose its identity in the present context of mass-migration and globalization have found themselves united around this no to the minarets and waving a flag in defence of their Country’s Christian identity: a paradoxical battle, since both the Government and all the Christian communities have expressed their lack of support of the ban.



Several factors have led to this: a widespread conviction that the minaret is the expression of a terrorism- fuelling religion; the humiliation suffered at the hands of Muslim dictatorships such as that of Gaddafi’s Libya, where two Swiss citizens are still held as hostages; a general sense of insecurity, to which the Government is perceived as not responding adequately; the growing unemployment rate and the economic crisis which present the immigrants (23% of the Swiss population do not have a Swiss passport) as people who rob the locals of their jobs; a certain form of secularism which would like to ban all religious symbols from he public space.


I believe that if referendums were held in several countries sharing Switzerland’s social issues the same results would be given.



It is hard to venture a forecast of the repercussions of this referendum’s results in other European countries and in their relationships with Arab countries.


My opinion is that it all depends on whether and how these results will be exploited to foment a sort of cultural and religious war. In fact, in both Europe and the Muslim countries there is no lack of movements ready to take advantage of such explosive issues. Failure in controlling these tensions and trends could result in a violent ‘solution’, with heavy consequences not only for Switzerland.


The results of the Swiss referendum have let emerge one fact: that the cohesion of a society undergoing a rapid and profound transformation, and of a Country which for centuries had been used to defending its own identity and independence, cannot be a target reached once and for all but a painful and dynamic process.


It is not enough to accuse of being racist those who voted in favour of the ban: in Switzerland, as elsewhere, it is necessary to work in order to find valid answers to the fears and disorientation which, to a certain extent, are understandable.



Even though I think that the referendum’s results represent a step backwards, I cannot exclude the presence of a positive side: this episode should lead to a deeper, shared reflection on the implications of the phenomenon of ‘hybridization of civilizations’ currently under way in the world.


This is everyone’s job: on one hand, those who risk to stress the Christian character of Europe only when it can be used for defending themselves against ‘the others’ will have to face globalization and its social consequences (in fact, the Catholic Church could point to a crucial method, in that she has always lived unity within pluriformity); on the other hand, those who claim that religions belong to the private sphere only will have to reckon with those people who ask to live their faith in a public way.



The Swiss referendum of 29th November 2009 becomes a provocation for everyone: material welfare is not enough to silence the dramatic anthropological, social and cultural transformations currently affecting our societies. We need the courage to plumb the depths and out of them draw a lesson for the future.