Permanent Tourist

A personal website by Mark Howells-Mead

Minarets and missiles

It’s not often that I write about anything except my life, photography, or multimedia, but a blog post on the website of U.K. newspaper “The Times”, to which my aunt sent a link today, has inspired me to put pen to paper.

An example of the poster which is causing so much fuss

An example of the poster which is causing so much fuss

In brief summary, a current advertising campaign by the SVP (Swiss People’s Party) – yes, those nationalists who whipped up a storm with their “black sheep” posters a while back – shows a fully veiled woman in front of a flag indicating Switzerland covered with minarets, which themselves are strongly reminiscent of missiles. The message which the SVP is trying to get across is that Swiss nationals should vote for a ban on the erection of minarets across the country. Direct: yes; subtle: no.

I want to write about the campaign on two levels: the first of which being about the imagery used. It’s quite clear that the red and white of the campaign plays on the colours used on the national flag, to stir up the national pride of the Swiss. The SVP is well-known here for its nationalistic stance on all things political and this latest campaign is no exception: playing on potential fears and racial stereotypes to provoke a dramatic response. The design of the minarets has deliberately been chosen so as to draw a direct comparison with rockets or missiles, making an indirect but clear link to a perceived (and, in my opinion, inaccurate) terrorist threat which Islam (as an ideology) poses.

I’ll say now that I am not experienced enough to comment on either religious or historical aspects of Islam with any authority. I do know that the ideology which is Islam dictates a certain way of life, which includes a heavy focus on religious practices and living life in a certain way. I also know, through the evidence which has been made evident in news and media throughout my life, that the ideology also dictates a generalization that certain types of people are inferior; something with which I totally disagree. It’s also clear that the ideology of Islam (as reported in reference sources I’ve come across through the years) does not itself allow the level of concession which it expects from the rest of the world. Namely, Islamic leaders demand acceptance of their customs, while refusing to accept those of other ideologies.

The fact that the poster uses the image of a veiled woman is a blatant play to stir up discussion and reaction. The use of the most obvious and instantly recognizable image of a person with different beliefs to the ones most commonly held by Swiss nationals is a clear ploy to provoke an extreme response. Using a caricature of a bearded, dark-skinned man, which might perhaps be seen by many as the most realistic choice, would probably have been less recognizable than the image chosen here and would certainly have been a much less graphic image.

The political emphasis behind the poster is one of provoking a response; that much is evident. By tying the ideological beliefs of a vast number of people to a terrorist threat – for this is what the poster does at first recognition – the SVP may have two motives. Firstly, to ensure that the reactionary vote from people who are quick to jump on a bandwagon swing their way, and secondly (in my own opinion), a ploy to try and ensure that more eligible voters take part in national referenda. The decreasing number of eligible voters taking part in Swiss referenda is famously sinking, particularly amongst younger people.

As in the case of religion, I am not qualified to talk with any great knowledge on the subject of political systems. I deliberately avoided casting any vote when I lived in England, against the recommendation of those who say that “without a vote, you have no right to complain“. My reasoning for abstaining was simple: the British system of voting and political power is much less affected by an individual vote than the voting system employed here in Switzerland. In England, I felt that my vote was a pointless drop in a limitless ocean; no matter how I voted on polling day for the policitian or party I may have thought would do some good, the overall effect across the nation was insignificant. Sure, when the Conservative Party were voted out of power and replaced by Labour, there was a great sigh of relief from all those who felt hard done-by during the Tory years. Locally in Hampshire, where I grew up, a change to a different party brought some improvements. But in the years following the general election in 1997, at which Blair’s “New Labour” took power, it became very quickly evident that it was a case of the lesser of two evils: where Labour policy improved on the Tory legacy in many aspects, other aspects of daily life quickly became worse. In more recent years, the national position has worsened to the stage where the British public appear to have little confidence in either their elected government or the opposition. (Again, I must stress that this opinion is purely my own and based on only the most elementary level of research and knowledge. Please don’t ask me to go into more detail here.)

The point I was getting to is that I am a strong supporter of the Swiss policy of national referendum. Every Swiss national is eligible to vote on a wide range of topics, not just vote annually for a politician or party of their choice. (See this explanation of the Swiss political system.) From a proposal for Switzerland to enter into the European Union, to smaller referenda on a local level, many decisions are taken not just by an elected body of politicians but also by the public. While the proposal being put forward in the instance promoted by the SVP campaign is laced with xenophobia and nationalism, the simple and laudable fact is that the nation is again being asked to choose for itself how it wants the country to be managed.

There are arguments for and against minarets, immigration, foreign aid, transparency, full integration of Switzerland to the EU and so on. I can barely begin to imagine all of them; despite having lived here for several years, I don’t have the knowledge of those who follow such debate and policy over any kind of period. What I know is that if a “Gemeinde” (parish or local authority) polls its registered residents for an opinion on something which will affect that community and its residents, the will of the people as a whole will produce the result. Simply put, the people of Switzerland decide how Switzerland is run: directly, and immediately.

It may be a strange opinion, and it’s probably one which comes of not wanting to bear great responsibility, but I am glad to be a foreigner here, absolved of any ability or responsibility to vote. I have been here long enough to be a holder of the C permit, which restricts me only in terms of the possibility of an automatic re-acceptance after a long-term absence from Switzerland, the ability to join the army, and the ability to vote. I currently have no intention of applying for Swiss nationality, which is based on two personal beliefs. Firstly, and most importantly, I am proud to be British. My second reason, though, is the one which is more pertinent to the topic of this article: I believe strongly that I am a long-term visitor to Switzerland. I have no Swiss heritage or ancestry (that I am aware of), and although I have a legal right to apply for citizenship, I have no moral right. While the length of the long term may well last for the rest of my life, I am, and always will be, here as a guest of the Swiss. To that end, my personal opinion on national topics is not irrelevant, but it must sit in second place to the opinions held by the Swiss themselves. The citizens of a country should be able to decide how their country is run; naturally bearing in mind basic and essential human rights.

To read the blog post by Charles Bremner which inspired this article, please visit the “Times” website.