The vote last week in Switzerland to ban the building of more minarets — even though there were only four in existence already — was a spasm of intolerance and hatred from a nation we normally think of as boring. After all, when you think of Switzerland, you think of things like mountains, yodeling, cuckoo clocks, chocolate, and cheese, not religious bigotry, especially since Switzerland has earned a reputation as being the land of neutrality and peace for centuries. They don’t even belong to the E.U. or the United Nations since that would be seen as taking sides. But the vote to ban a religious symbol says a lot about the Swiss — or at least those that voted for the constitutional amendment — and the state of religious tolerance in Europe: they can be just as ignorant and bigoted as anyone.
Ross Douthat at the New York Times blames it on letting all those Muslims in to Europe in the first place.
The immigrants came first as guest workers, recruited after World War II to relieve labor shortages, and then as beneficiaries of generous asylum and family reunification laws, designed to salve Europe’s post-colonial conscience. The European elites assumed that the divide between Islam and the West was as antiquated as scimitars and broadswords, and that a liberal, multicultural, post-Christian federation would have no difficulty absorbing new arrivals from more traditional societies. And they decided, too — as Christopher Caldwell writes in “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe,” his wonderfully mordant chronicle of Europe’s Islamic dilemma — that liberal immigration policies “involve the sort of nonnegotiable moral duties that you don’t vote on.”
Better if they had let their voters choose. The rate of immigration might have been slower, and the efforts to integrate the new arrivals more strenuous. Instead, Europe’s leaders ended up creating a clash of civilizations inside their own frontiers.
Millions of Muslims have accepted European norms. But millions have not. This means polygamy in Sweden; radical mosques in Britain’s fading industrial cities; riots over affronts to the Prophet Muhammad in Denmark; and religiously inspired murder in the Netherlands. It means terrorism, and the threat of terrorism, from London to Madrid.
I’m not sure which is more repulsive; the idea of keeping people out of a country based on their religion or making sure they assimilate properly if you let them in, or assuming that “millions” of Muslims have not accepted European norms and the only reason they moved to Britain, Germany, France, or Switzerland was to bomb train stations.
This kind of bigotry feeds on itself. We have heard all the excuses — “they won’t learn our ways, they stick to themselves, they demand we learn their ways” — and some of it coming from people whose ancestors came to the United States or Western Europe and promptly founded their own cities and who have proud traditions of maintaining their own ways in their own neighborhoods, like Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Hamtramck in Detroit, Chinatown and Little Italy in New York and Chicago, Koreatown in Los Angeles, and, of course, Little Havana right here in Miami. How many of those people had ancestors who faced outright discrimination upon their arrival — “No Italians or Irish or Jews need apply” — or how many of them died because no country in the Western Hemisphere would accept them as the world headed into war in 1939? The typical response is that Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia discriminate against other faiths and ban outward symbols of Christianity. That may easily be, but holding up a feudal kingdom as an example of religious tolerance is a weak place to start, and given the history of crusades and brutal imperialism in the name of Christianity, it is a moot point.
And Mr. Douthat contributes to this mentality by darkly warning that the reaction to the vote in Switzerland will bring on Islamist terrorism. Even if that was the case — which is as wild-eyed and paranoid as you can get without actually becoming Pat Robertson — didn’t the Swiss voters think of the backlash to such a vote beforehand, and not just from the Islamic community? Europeans, including those who practice their own form of bigotry against other religions, seized the chance to denounce the vote.
There is more than just one form of terrorism. There is the kind with bombs and killings, but there is also the terrorism of intolerance and bigotry that the Swiss demonstrated at the ballot box. In the long term and for the devastation that it can bring, it’s fair to say that both kinds are equally destructive.