Before last week the Swiss were known for three things: dodgy tax-haven banks, chocolates and watches. Of the three I can only speak to the excellence of the last two. My girth has expanded under the gentile influence of the Chocolates and I find Swiss watches absolutely drool worthy.
The Swiss have a well earned reputation for fastidiousness, excellence in manufacture and precision. Unfortunately for the Swiss, every once in a while the darker side of their personalities comes out to play. The last time we had this part of the Swiss character on display was with their dark dealings with Nazi Germany. The Swiss were covered in shame by their willful participation in hiding ill-gotten Nazi gain. In the end they had to pay a large amount of money as restitution.
If the Swiss relationship with the Jews of pre and post holocaust Europe were and are fraught with bad feelings, there are yet other followers of the Abrahamic religion that have a bone to pick with the Swiss. These are the followers of the world's second largest religion—Islam.
While Muslims only represent perhaps no more than 5% of the Swiss population they were singled out by the populous for special attention. This attention was not the least bit beneficial. In a plebiscite the Swiss electorate decided that the Minarets that adorn Muslim Mosques had to go.
After a long spell of multi-culturalism Europe is now channeling Glenn Beck. Since the continent is bereft of Mexicans to pick on, bigots have decided that Muslims are an acceptable substitute. As the Muslims are also of darker hue than the natives it's a win-win for the reactionary troglodytes of Europe as they can add a large portion of racism to their Islamophobic rants.
These twin phobias were brought into sharp relief with the Swiss vote. The ban on Minarets was cruel, mean-spirited, irrational, spiteful, unnecessary and totally predictable. Unfortunately one cannot depend on the good will of the majority especially when it comes to minority rights. That is why the founders put a double barrel of protection in our founding document. There was the first amendment and in the constitution itself a ban on religious test for public office. Both were meant as a firewall against the religious passions of the majority acting as detriment to religious minorities. Left to their own devices the passions of a transient majority, otherwise known as the mob, will quickly oppress the rights of those unfortunate enough to be in the minority.
Because Swiss Democracy is so direct, these unruly passions of the temporary majority are given more play than they would be in the U.S.A. It is one of the reasons that the Swiss were one of the last nations to give women the right to vote.
More than anything else the vote in Switzerland reaffirms the absolute need for legal checks on the passions of masses. Left to their own devices voters are easily swayed by appeals to fear and NIMBYism. The Swiss were manly objecting to the rapid social change engulfing them. It has been very roughly three hundred years since they have had to deal with confessional change. That was when John Calvin was alive and kicking. The people of Switzerland did not deal with that confessional conflict particularly well. The only consolation they had back then is that they had lots of company in their misery. The Protestant Reformation was a particularly savage time in the history of Western Europe. The continent went on a hundred and thirty year attempt to discern the contents of people's souls. The bemused ruler of the Ottoman's could not believe his luck; just when Christendom needed strength through unity it decided to rip itself apart on doctrinal trivialities.
Fortunately Europe has not raised its religious obsessions to that high bar in 21st Century. The ghastly disease of religious intolerance that infected Western Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries is merely a low-grade malaise in the second millennium. It is not that we lack places were the contagion is still virulent and endemic, it is just that that the pathogen has not yet become epidemic. Stretching the medical metaphor to the breaking point and beyond, the vote in the Swiss Republic is a cold sore on the body politic of European Union. It's mostly embarrassing but still can point to more serious symptoms yet to come.
Since we are talking about embarrassments, this is good a time as any to bring up the Nicolas Sarkozy. The President of Fifth French Republic rushed in where angles dare not thread and managed to step on a political rake. In a mad rush to pander to conservative voters and defend both his Swiss neighbors and the French tradition of laïcité Sarkozy managed to look both crass and ridiculous. His speech on the matter of the minarets was a breathtaking example of political opportunism and bad form.
Are we guilty of schadenfreude in our observations? Of course we are; there are perverse joys in watching the E.U. go through the same gyrations the U.S. does when it attempts to talk about undocumented aliens. The causes are exactly the same; large influxes of immigrants who are fleeing economic hard times at home are flowing into nation states and societies that are ill prepared for the onslaught. There is a large amount of social, economic, cultural and political frisson occurring because of this process. Rather than try to deal with the new realities in a systematic way people reach for facile solutions.
The real issue is not the minarets but how to incorporate the economic Diaspora of Maghreb in to the long-standing nation states and cultures of the E.U.; Islam is at best a peripheral issue. The vote in Switzerland is just another indication of how badly the E.U. has handled the influx of immigrants from far-flung lands. This is not particularly surprising since the last time Western Europe had to deal with a large influx of peoples was back in the days when the new immigrants had group identities such as Goth, Vandal, Visigoth, Lumbards, Alans, Slaves and Magyars. Back then the new immigrants had the disturbing habits of, raping, looting and burning the established natives.
With that bit of history as context we can gain some perspective on the modern day migration of people into the E.U. The challenges presented by this demographic change are small beer compared to what happened before. If Europe has the willingness to adapt to the new realities, if it can accept that change is a given, it can adjust. If Europe insists on rigidly rejecting change, if it insists on stasis, it will eventually fail. Europe's open borders and affluence are going to continue to be a magnet adventurous people looking to better their lives, the compaction of Europe is going to change. It is going to change in a quite literal way. This neither a good thing nor a bad thing—it is the reality of an interconnected globe.