Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Switzerland's vote to ban the construction of new minarets was billed by its far-right supporters as a largely symbolic referendum on extremist ideology. It was, just not the brand they envisioned. The move by Swiss voters exemplifies the disturbing trend of racial hatred and xenophobia that has been in the upsurge in Europe recently, particularly in the East, but increasingly in western Europe as well. The vote had nothing to do with the oppression of religious minorities in Islamic nations as was often suggested. It is curious that voters in a western country such as Switzerland seem to think Saudi Arabia's policies towards minorities merit imitation, as many of those who supported the ban claimed.

The only connection between the vote and extremism is that it was an extremist proposition. Muslims are increasingly playing the role that Jews took for much of Europe's history and that the Roma people continue to play as the scapegoat of choice. Whenever there is economic difficulty it is easiest to kick some minority in the face instead of addressing the problem. But, I will not devote any more time to condemning the resurgence of extremist ultra-nationalism in Europe. If anything good has come out of this vote it has been the near unanimous condemnation of it by outside observers, a respond that is more than sufficient.

Rather, it is important to ask why 57% of Swiss voters approved this measure, and what can be done to stem the tide of xenophobia and neo-fascism in the western world. The much proffered notion that this is due to Islamic extremism is patently absurd. If anything it will increase the alienation and thereby contribute to the radicalization of Muslims. This vote has little to do with Muslims, it has to due with insecurity in western nations, economic insecurity, but also insecurity in national identity, an insecurity that breeds fear, hatred, xenophobia and extremism. What is to be done?

To an extent education about different cultures is helpful, though this is a palliative and not a cure. Minorities do not owe majorities constant explanations of their actions nor should they be expected to takes some loyalty tests. A minority cannot afford to be quite as cocky as Jabotinsky suggested and the attitude of "instead of turning our backs to the accusers, as there is nothing to apologize for, and nobody to apologize to, we swear again and again that it is not our fault." But it must recognize the limits of education and dialouge, it must recognize that it has no need or obligation to explain itself to every petty bigot. The most effective way of undermining far-right extremism fall somewhere in the middle.

The most important thing is too isolate the extremists. Education is an important part of this, it is useful in pealing away innocent and ignorant supporters of intolerant views. When dealing with extremists it is important to remember that most are simply ignorant, not malicious. They sincerely believe the nonsense they are sprouting. For these people, many of whom have gone on to become prominent advocates of tolerance, it is important to offer education and patience. However, for the irreconcilable radicals and their opportunistic leaders there can be no hope of conversion. This core group must be isolated, stigmatized, and marginalized. This must be accomplished through a coalition of minorities and underrepresented groups as well as civil society organizations. Hatred cannot be eliminated, but its effect can be mitigated. Above all, it is important not to destroy these efforts by meeting intolerance with intolerance.

1 comment:

Don Emmerich Jr. said...

As usual, very well said.