Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

A democracy is only as righteous as its citizens

N.B.:  I feel compelled to clarify one thing…my implication here is not that the Swiss people, or the whole of Europe, is racist, rather, my criticism is focused on two thingsthe hypocrisy many Westerners express when discussing democracy (e.g.,  their reactions to Swiss democracy vs. Gazan democracy), as well as the sometimes failure of democracy itself to produce just and equal decisions (e.g., in this case, in the case of California’s Prop 8).  I mean no harm to my Swiss friends and recognize that while 58% of voters made what I feel was a very poor choice, that vote does not represent the whole of the populace.  It is also worth mentioning that Switzerland has a record of low voter turnout.

Many people are outraged at the Swiss people’s decision to ban minarets from their skylines, a decision made by referendum.

From the outset, let me say that I am wholly opposed to this decision, just as I am opposed to the burqa ban in France, Egypt’s ban on building churches, several Muslim countries’ bans on conversion, and Saudi Arabia’s banning of female hair.  I fundamentally believe in the right of anyone to practice their religion, anywhere (though I certainly prefer they keep it to themselves).  I should also say that two wrongs don’t make a right: I’ve heard plenty of statements along the lines of “good for the Swiss, they’re standing up to Islam” from people who, were the tables turned, would call inequality if a majority-Muslim nation does the same thing.

That said, much of the outrage today seems to be directed solely at the Swiss, with much emphasis on the fact that Switzerland is a democracy, and the referendum was voted on by the people.  It would seem that Switzerland is being held to a higher standard than those Muslim countries with similar practices; Fair enough, you might say, those Muslim countries with similar laws are not democracies. What people seem to be forgetting is that democracy can have undesirable results: Hitler was approved by an 85% vote of the people, for example, and everyone’s favorite example—Hamas—was elected by popular vote almost four years ago.

So why do so many people hold Switzerland to a higher standard?  Is the assumption that a country which gives the freedom of voting to its citizens a better country?  Mind you, I’ve never actually been to Switzerland, but having lived nearly 25 years in the United States, I can say with absolute certainty that there have been a great number of poor democratic choices made by the people in my lifetime, and undoubtedly many more will follow.  But here, when we complain, we are waved off with the statement, “But it is the will of the people.”  And what if the people are just not right?

I find this incident particularly ironic: What a lot of Europeans and Americans seem not to realize is that, often, Muslims have left their own countries and emigrated to the so-called West in search of better opportunity, or more freedom.  Bigoted types, when ranting about Muslims in Europe, often use the tired old claim that “they should go back where they came from.”  What this totally ignores is that where they came from may have been somewhere where they lacked the freedom to practice Islam as much or as little as they wanted.  Or more often, that “where they came from” is in fact where they are: Plenty of Swiss Muslims were born in Switzerland and know no other country as their home.

Nevertheless, it was not the Swiss Muslims who made the decision to ban minarets.  It was 58% of the voters, a 58% vote from racists who think that somehow banning minarets will do something other than anger Muslims, driving them farther toward the fringe and for some, toward more extreme beliefs.

Democracy is only as righteous as its citizens.  And if the citizens of a country are racist, democracy will reflect that.

10 Comments

  1. A civilized democracy requires protection of minority rights. That is perhaps more important than majority rule. Just many of us don’t think that the voters should be able to vote on civil rights (as in Prop 8 in CA), so voters should not be allowed to vote on religious liberty. I think this vote is an abomination…and I don’t doubt that US voters given the chance and incitement would commit a similar abomination. But that don’t make it less of an abomination.

  2. I can not second you more on that jmundstuk.
    One of my favorite fench writers once said: “La démocratie, ce n’est pas la loi de la majorité, mais la protection de la minorité.” meaning “Democracy is not the law of the majority, but the protection of the minority”.

    I’m so surprised by this vote. I’ve worked in Zurich for almost a year and a half. The first thing that dazzled me was the use of an old smiling turkish man face in ads for a shopping chain (a swiss equivalent to Wal Mart). I thought this country was so open minded and serene with its identity. But it seems I was wrong.

    I think fear is a great motivation for the vote. If you see the figures, Geneve for example rejected the vote. Actually, it was the counties with the less muslims living in them which voted the most for the ban.

  3. “…a 58% vote from racists who think that somehow banning minarets will do something other than anger Muslims.”

    I disagree with that part of your fine analysis and thoughts.

    They were doing it EXACTLY to anger Muslims. That was the whole pleasure of the vote.

  4. I agree with you, Jillian. But to get one fact straight: Hitler never got 85% in any election. First of all, because he was to be voted by the parliament, not by the people. But his party, NSDAP, never got even half of the vote: In 1933, it was strongest – with 43,9 %.

    • He wasn’t elected no, but he was indeed approved by the people in a plebiscite. The voters at that time supported him by 85% (though I’ve seen the figure as low as 70% and as high as 90%).

  5. Problem with democracy is that people often don’t really know what they are voting for, they vote for or against something without really considering the subject at hand, but rather to express a general disatisfaction with a situation or government. Nice example are the referenda held in Europe for the Constiutional Treaty and subsequently the Treaty of Lisbon. An other example is voters in Germany voting for certain extreme-right parties, without understanding that the country would go down the drain if these parties’ entirely unrealistic election programmes were put into practice. To polarise a bit, the majority of the population might just be too stupid to vote.

    A more optimistic note, the Swiss vote might actually be overturned by either the Swiss Supreme Court or the European Court of Human Right as it violates freedom of religion.

  6. Jillian, since firstly read this article elsewhere, I agreed with your concept in the title and the analysis in the post itself since you mentioned the situation in a rational way but the bigotry in this world, some (or many) people used to accept everything “as is” without thinking beyond especially when dealing with ‘democracy’; it is as you said in the title.

    Thanks for mentioning my post about this by the way.

  7. >I mean no harm to my Swiss friends and recognize that while 58% of voters made what I feel was a very poor choice, that vote does not represent the whole of the populace.  It is also worth mentioning that Switzerland has a record of low voter turnout.

    of course it is representative. Those who are silent…

    >What people seem to be forgetting is that democracy can have undesirable results: Hitler …

    I realize Americans obsession to mention Hitler whenever possible, but a more recent example to demonstrate the possible risks of majority vote is Bush, demonstrating that actually nobody has learned anything from history.
    And the referendum in Switzerland is perhaps ‘just’ the ‘logical consequence’ of the ‘war on terror’, the desired result of division based on confusion creating instability within different nations as well as within the EU in the long run I guess.

  8. … and Bush was voted for a second term. And Sharon was voted Prime Minister even after being found guilty by an Israeli Commission for the Sabra and Shatila massacre.etc… we all get the leadership we deserve.

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