Swiss Vote is a Shame

For the past century, beautiful, peaceful, rich Switzerland has been the world’s envy. But in recent years, its good fortune seems to have run out. The current worldwide uproar against Switzerland for banning minarets on Muslim mosques is the latest misfortune to hit the Helvetic Republic.

By Eric S. Margolis

Published: Mon 14 Dec 2009, 9:13 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:49 AM

Switzerland’s change of fortune began in 1998 when a Swissair DC-10, with 229 aboard, crashed off Newfoundland, Canada. After a series of calamitous business decisions, Swissair, an elite airline once known as ‘the flying bank,’ went bankrupt.Next came the Holocaust crisis as Jewish Americans began punishing Switzerland for allegedly refusing to save Jews from Nazi persecution.In truth, the Swiss saved as many Jews as they turned away — far more than Canada or the US — but the damage was done.The Swiss had to pay huge reparations to influential Jewish groups yet they still earned the bitter enmity of Jews everywhere.

Then the largest Swiss bank, UBS, with assets worth four times more than the entire country, nearly went bankrupt in 2008.UBS was forced by US tax investigators to violate sacred Swiss banking secrecy and shamelessly throw clients to the wolves rather than give up its large business in the USA.The Swiss banking industry is unlikely to ever fully recover from this disaster.Last month, after years of xenophobia, scaremongering, and anti-Muslim racism by the hard right People’s Party, Swiss voted 57 per cent in a referendum to ban further construction of mosque minarets. Switzerland has only four small mosques. The mostly Swiss German People’s Party claimed the ban would stop the threat of ‘Islamisation of Switzerland’ and defend women’s rights from alleged Muslim oppression.Europe’s anti-Muslim right wing political parties rejoiced.France’s conservative President, Nicholas Sarkozy, lauded the Swiss vote.So did Italy’s former fascists;French neo-fascist leader, Jean Marie Le Pen; and Dutch fascists.

Swiss, as I learned while living there for many years, are fiercely nationalistic and suspicious of all foreigners.They have long feared hungry neighbours coveting their little Alpine land. In 1939-40, Germany and Italy almost invaded, but decided not to after Switzerland’s 800,000 citizen soldiers prepared to fight to the death.

Today, 25 per cent of Switzerland’s population is foreign-born.This deeply upsets Swiss — particularly the German-speaking majority. The more-worldly, sophisticated French Swiss are far more open-minded.There is even a Swiss secret police thatwatches all resident foreigners; locals are encouraged to spy on non-Swiss neighbours.

The Swiss People’s Party, like conservative rightwing parties in the US, Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and Australia, all have adopted varying degrees of anti-Islamism to as their most potent, popular ideology.Today’s hatred and fear of Muslims is the modern version of 1930’s anti-Semitism.

Just as Nazis denounced Jews as dangerous sub-humans, today western right-wingers, Christian fundamentalists, pro-Israel neoconservatives, have simply changed the hate label from Jews to Muslims and the code word, ‘terrorists.’ Switzerland’s small Muslim minority mostly comes from the Balkans and is barely religious. The Swiss are delighted to sell jewelry to veiled women from Arabia.They just don’t want any living among them.

The Swiss federal government strongly opposed the referendum. Thoughtful Swiss are also appalled and disgusted.I admire the Swiss referendum system. But the mosque vote shows there must be some legal circuit breakers to preventfear mongering, prejudice and ignorance swaying less educated people.The Muslim world is working itself up to a furious response that will include boycotts of Swiss goods and pulling billions from Swiss banks, hammering the Swiss already battered economy.

Many of the slow-minded rural Swiss Germans who voted for the ban may have to go back to cheese-making and cow-herding.

The vote would not have passed without strong female support. Many Swiss women supported the ban in a rush of anti-Muslim emotion. Their wrongheaded vote may set back the cause of Muslim women by providing ammunition to Muslim fundamentalists.

Most Swiss women, who only got to vote in 1971, had no idea the Balkan Muslim women in Switzerland are as liberated as they are.I still have deep respect for Switzerland, the country of my youth.But today, I am deeply ashamed of those Swiss who have violated their nation’s honour.

Eric Margolis is a veteran US journalist who reported from the Middle East and Asia for nearly two decades. For feedback, write to

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