What Colour Is the Village Green?

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Often the politics of the local turns on the “who” as much as the “where.”

Switzerland showed as much very recently.  The country enjoys some goodwill among the sort of people who read FPR.  It is one of the world’s oldest democracies, and by most standards, the most direct one.  Its citizens traipse to the polls several times a year to vote on federal, cantonal, and local referenda.  The country’s strong civic ethos and attachment to direct participation and local self-government have largely survived economic development, and have been one bulwark against entry to what many see as a top-heavy European Union.

Two weeks ago, Swiss direct democracy got the world’s attention in a more dubious way.  Some 57% of its voters approved an initiative to ban the building of new minarets.  To some, the controversy seemed like a tempest in a teacup, since there are only four minarets in the whole country.  But the referendum became a symbol of ever more pronounced tensions over national identity, tolerance, and the place of Muslim and other immigrants.

From the cafes of liberal Geneva to the newsrooms of BBC and CNN, the referendum result was obviously distasteful.  It seemed to smack of xenophobia and a peculiar animus towards a Muslim minority that makes up barely 5% of the Swiss population.  Rights-oriented NGOs and activist groups had protested mightily against the proposal, and after the vote were still planning to take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg.  The Federal Council and Assembly had also made their views abundantly clear beforehand, recommending that voters reject the idea as an embarrassment to Switzerland’s image abroad.

The initiative’s supporters saw matters quite differently.  They had only got the referendum underway by forcing it up to the federal level, after earlier attempts within the cantons had been blocked as unconstitutional.  They had had to wage their campaign against opposition from much of the Swiss élite.  And they felt banning minarets was a sorely needed response to encroachment by radical Islam.  They align with many commentators who fear the emergence of “Eurabia”—a surge of Muslim immigration that turns Europe into a timid appendage of the Middle East.  From that perspective, minarets are symbols of Islam as a political force.  The desire to ban them, they argue, stems from a long frustrated democratic will to preserve local identity and values.

The minaret controversy is but the latest instance in a growing trend across the developed West and especially in western Europe.  Large chunks of the populace are uncomfortable with the shifting demographic landscape of their homelands.  Sometimes it is Muslim immigrants, some of whom are associated with Islamist ideologies at odds with liberal democracy.  More broadly, it is the growing numbers of immigrants who are quite literally recolouring society.  A month before the minaret incident, debate swirled around the BBC’s invitation to Nick Griffin, head of the British National Party, to appear on the Question Time television programme.  He took the opportunity to lambaste successive governments for a lax immigration policy that had brought wave upon wave of unassimilable minorities into the country.  Claiming to speak for the frustrated “indigenous population,” he called for measures to stem and reverse the flow, restoring the overwhelmingly white make-up of Britain before 1948.

For anyone committed to strong local communities and suspicious of liberal globalisation, these heated debates will strike a nerve.  They should unsettle much of our readership, if only because the temptation to slide from misgivings about global capitalism into defences of national identity is real.  Parties like the BNP often make distributist noises on economic policy.  They invoke traditionalist and localist images of “Deep England” and “the village green.”  On the FPR website, we have seen well-reasoned admiration for the distributist features of the Swiss economy in the last century.  Many of the folk who voted for banning minarets would share the localist sentiments that animate our ongoing discussions.  And I vividly recall one conversation with a distributist at a conference last year, who when asked what he thought about making common cause more broadly, promptly insisted that he saw Islam as a “pernicious” influence in the world.

There are some troubling overlaps between valuing community and playing up these larger boundaries.  They will need healthy debate if they are not to lead us into a dead end.

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