Here is a story that may sound familiar: a leader of a Muslim community tried to build a mosque with the support of his mayor, but his request drew national protests and was denied. This story occurred in Switzerland several years ago, but because it played out during national elections there, it offers some important insights as the United States enters its own campaign season amid the controversy surrounding the construction of a Muslim community centre near Ground Zero.
In 2006, Mutalip Karaademi, an Albanian who had lived in Switzerland since the early 1980s, sought approval from the cantonal government in Berne to build a mosque in his hometown of Lagenthal. Despite approval from local authorities, public opposition to a 16.5-foot tall minaret halted construction. Karaademi commented on the project, saying he “actually thought it might promote dialogue.”
Swiss opponents of the minaret argued that they were not against Muslims or their ability to practice their religion. Instead, they opposed the way in which Muslims had chosen to build their religious structures: “We don’t have anything against Muslims. But we don’t want minarets. The minaret is a symbol of a political and aggressive Islam,” Oskar Freysinger, Member of Parliament for the country’s far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) stated.
There are clear, somewhat eerie parallels to what is occurring in the United States. Yet many Americans, including progressive political leaders, seem not to have learned from the Swiss case, which could have implications for the November congressional elections and beyond.
The Swiss controversy took place at a time of economic uncertainty, amid concerns stoked by conservatives about the country’s changing identity, and against the backdrop of the 2007 parliamentary elections – similar to the current climate in the United States. In the Swiss case, the SVP conducted a controversial campaign that appealed to people’s fears by not only opposing the mosque and its minaret but also calling for the expulsion of immigrants if their children committed a crime. That year, the SVP won 29 per cent of the vote – the highest of any party, and the most any political party had won in almost 90 years.
As in Switzerland, a local issue has sparked a broader, national election-year strategy by conservative candidates speaking to people’s worst fears. In the United States, this has entailed appealing to the anxiety of an energised group of likely voters – the conservative Tea Party movement.
At a time when other segments of the population are not politically energised, the Tea Party’s vocal opposition to policies proposed by the president, coupled with its political enthusiasm, has made its members the go-to audience for many Republican candidates.
As a result, like the Swiss campaign, several candidates and political officials in the United States have not only called for moving the Muslim community centre known as Park51 farther than two blocks away from Ground Zero, but have also supported anti-immigration measures that appeal to the Tea Party group, such as holding congressional hearings on whether to repeal constitutional provisions that guarantee citizenship to people born in the United States, even if their parents are in the country illegally.
What is occurring in the United States is more than an expression of frustration at current economic uncertainties; it is disapproval by conservatives at the direction the country’s identity is heading in.
Because of this, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been right to argue that what is at stake in the Park51 debates are constitutional rights and the United States’ core principles. Democrats and progressive political leaders should follow suit and offer a coherent, unified message that not only rejects the efforts of the Park51 opponents, but that articulates their own narrative of where the country should be heading. Presenting a message that includes the defence of the rights of religious and ethnic groups will not only help mobilise progressive voters in the coming elections, but will help protect the country’s values in the future.
Two years after the Swiss parliamentary elections, the country passed a constitutional referendum to ban the construction of minarets. Some may argue that something like this could not happen in the United States, but remember: like the United States, Switzerland’s constitution guaranteed freedom of religion.
* Ariel Kastner is a foreign affairs analyst and editor in Washington, DC. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).