Permanent Tourist

The personal website of 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.

6 responses to “Minarets and missiles”

  1. Imogene avatar

    A well-written and thought-provoking article, Mark.(And I only beat you to it because you wrote around 1000 words more than I did, and not one of them is one too many!) I disagree with you on this, though: I DO believe you have a moral right to apply for citizenship should you wish to do so. I look forward to more discussion – if the LDR and Jo allow! – on Sunday. :)


  2. Paul Shadwell avatar
    Paul Shadwell

    It would seem that you opinions beliefs and understandings are very similar to my own. I too am proud to be British and also easily blend in to the surroundings, despite speak very little of the local language, which in my case and location isn’t necessarily Swiss German.
    I also believe, that if you are a guest in a country not your own, then you should make sure you fit in with the culture and certainly not enforce your own beliefs and understanding on the locals.
    Britain has been having this problem for years and there are many immigrants who have settled in the UK who are very proud to live the British way but there are others who refuse and not only blatantly continue to follow their own imported culture but insist that others be forced to become involved too.
    Now I may be overstating the issue here and I have a very similar view and understanding to you but this one rule for one and another rule for others is just not a great solution.

    Just my opinion of course.


  3. Richard avatar

    That’s a very well considered article Mark. It seems the federal system works well. Considering the model predates universal British suffrage (if not technical democracy) by some years, it’s wonderful to note how old and creaky our whig/tory 2-stroke engine looks.

  4. Anna avatar

    Glad I sent the link since it provoked such a balanced and thoughtful article.

  5. Graham MS avatar
    Graham MS

    I can understand your point about being a long term visitor but I wonder how you will feel if you’re still there in your seventies. Also, what if you and Jo have any children, and they grow up in Switzerland with only the occasional visit to the UK? Would they not feel more Swiss than British?

    I’m proud of my British heritage but frankly, I have little hope for the future of this country. In the last decade I have seen values and rights eroded, education dumbed down, selfishness and cynicism increase, and a largely unelected Government ruin the economy while frightening us into submission with scare words like “terrorism” and “global warming”. And like you, I feel like my opinion is a pointless drop in a limitless ocean.

  6. Mark Howells-Mead avatar

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. It’s good to know that I can write well on a topic in which I have little experience!

    Re. Graham’s comments; it’s clear that I cannot know what the future holds, or how I will feel in the distant future. I do know that I have been living away from Britain long enough now to know that it’s no longer the country I left. Graham’s comments regarding the changes in values and rights, education and so on hit the same chord which I feel, as an outsider. When I see how the country is being led, I have little (if any) inclination to return.

    Regarding what would happen were Jo and I to have children: again, it’s impossible to say how we or they would feel. I certainly don’t feel that children being able to grow up in an environment where they can feel safe and protected, well-educated and trained in a profession at the start of their adult life would be such a bad state of affairs, though.

    I am less keen to align myself and my future family to a flag out of loyalty than provide them with a safe, caring future in which their voice counts. However that may come about.

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