Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A(nother?) Crack in the Swiss Model

On a day when bad news seems to be coming in from every corner of the world (like today's Reuters report "of dissent, of imprisonment, of discrimination" in Bhutan, of all places), there is a tendency to look to Switzerland as a country where "things still work," one can "feel safe," and state one's citizenship without any sense of embarrassment. Even Bill Maher played the embarrassment card, invoking the Swiss in the title of one of his HBO comedy specials. Of course Switzerland is no more utopian than any other country, and this is hardly a recent insight. The story was probably best told by Italian director Franco Brusati in 1973 when he made his film Pane e Cioccolata (bread and chocolate).

Today, however, there is a new and far more serious version of Brusati's story, which probably could only be told properly by Al Jazeera: The Swiss People's party has initiated a campaign to ban the building of minarets in Switzerland. Their justification is that, in the words of the Al Jazeera account, minarets "are a symbol of power and threaten law and order in Switzerland." Unfortunately, the Al Jazeera story does not report on the percentage of parliamentary seats held by the Swiss People's party; so there is no way to tell how much this is a fringe effort. Furthermore, there is disagreement over this campaign within the party, meaning that its current representation in parliament may not be the right indicator. Regardless of the political strength of those behind the campaign, history has taught us about the slippery slope from "isolated fringe" to "national trend." Al Jazeera probably made the right call in reporting this one, particularly in the context of a Swiss constitution that guarantees freedom of religion!

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