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Mountains and Minarets

New York – Switzerland has four mosques with minarets and a population of 350.000 nominal Muslims, mostly Europeans from Bosnia and Kosovo, of which about 13% regularly go to prayer. Not a huge problem, one might have thought. Yet 57.5% of Swiss voters opted in a referendum for a constitutional ban on minarets, allegedly because of worries about “fundamentalism” and the “creeping Islamization” of Switzerland.

Are the Swiss more bigoted than other Europeans? Probably not. Referendums are a measure of popular gut feelings, rather than considered opinion, and popular gut feelings are rarely liberal. Referendums on this issue in other European countries might well produce startlingly similar results.

To attribute the Swiss vote to ban minarets – an idea that was promoted by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, but by none of the other political parties – to “Islamophobia” is perhaps to miss the point. To be sure, a long history of mutual Christian-Muslim hostility, and recent cases of radical Islamist violence, have made many people fearful of Islam in a way that they are not of Hinduism, say, or Buddhism. And the minaret, piercing the sky like a missile, is easily caricatured as a fearsome image.

But if the Swiss and other Europeans were self-assured about their own identities, their Muslim fellow-citizens probably would not strike such fear in their hearts. And that might be the problem. It was not so long ago that the majority of citizens in the Western world had their own unquestioned symbols of collective faith and identity. The church spires that grace many European cities still meant something to most people. Few people married outside their own faith.