Minarets II, Gulf Times Edition

If nothing else, the Gulf Times got some media time in Denmark for this article quoting Yusuf al-Qaradawi:

The rest of Europe may perhaps follow suit as indicated by Denmark. It has hailed this vote and announced that it will make a similar move.

So, what to say?

1. Qaradawi has a political agenda. The paper should have noted that. Now, the paper is seen as supporting Qaradawi without reservations.

1a. The Gulf Times is published in Qatar which is categorised by Freedom House as “not free” with regard to political freedom and freedom of the press. So, is this the government of Qatar speaking?

2. The Gulf Times might be excused for not knowing the finer details of the Swiss and Danish constitutions (which are really different when it comes to referendums), but if the news desk had been worth its money, it would have noted the following:

2a. Denmark as a state has not taken any stance on the Swiss referendum. Gulf Times could have contacted the Danish Foreign Office for information. Alternatively, you could have checked Politiken’s news in English section. I think it is safe to say, that Politiken is not unnecessarily positive towards the Danish government and the VKO majority.

2b. Did some Danish parties and politicians make positive comments about the Swiss vote? Yes: The Danish People’s Party (well, duh) and (more troubling) Søren Pind, the foreign policy spokesman of the Liberal Party. Needless to say, Pind makes use of the “I don’t support a ban, but…” rhetoric. I should note that the Liberal spokesman on immigration rejected any ideas of a ban on minarets or other architectural symbols.

Minarets

Today’s Swiss anti-minaret referendum (summary of the issue on Wikipedia) raises a number of interesting questions to a political scientist:

1. Political institutions play a role in the way politics are made: We would generally assume that the Swiss rules on referendum and voter initiative on the one hand is another veto point in the political process (i.e. it makes it harder to pass political decisions). On the other hand popular initiative and easy access to calling referendums also open for issues that the political elite would prefer to keep off the political agenda get on the agenda. So, more issues are politicised but less decisions passed.

2. There seems to be a relatively clear ethnic cleavage in the voting on the anti-minaret proposal: The French-speaking parts of Switzerland were less enthusiastic about banning minarets than the German-speaking parts. Now, if I remember correctly, this pattern was also seen in relation to UN membership, trade agreements with the EU and immigration policies in general. Geneva and St. Gallen may be in the same country, but they are very different places.

3. Democracy and individual rights are two different things: It is perfectly possible for a majority to vote against basic individual freedoms. Political theorists have been struggling with this issue since Locke.

4. As Norman Geras has pointed out, the campaign rests on the assumption that opposition to one form of unjustified discrimination (in particular the treatment of women in Muslim culture) is an acceptable argument to uphold another (discrimination of Muslims). But no matter how we twist or turn this, the calls for the banning of minarets and mosques (and even gender equality arguments) are proxies for a general anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment.

5. The campaign of the SVP is almost perfectly mirrored by a campaign by the Danish People’s Party to prevent the building of a mosque in Copenhagen. Note that DF also wants to use referendums as a means to block the building of mosques (which, rather than the minarets, is the real issue) – however the different constitutional rules makes the DF strategy much less likely to succeed.

6. A ban on minarets raises some intriguing judicial issues. If I’m correctly informed, Switzerland like Denmark does not have a constitutional court or (unlike Denmark) rules allowing for courts to repeal unconstitutional courts, so there will be an conflict between the freedom of religion and the proposed legislation. Then there is the issue about national legislation and the European Convention on Human Rights. For a discussion, look here). At this point we may also remember that parties like SVP and DF often hold a negative view of international law.

(This is a slightly different issue, but if we look at the UN system, I will just note that countries with a – to say the very least – questionable human rights record like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and China are represented in the UN Human Rights Council. Needless to say, this is a problem for the UN).

Oh, and as we all know, the Russians have been trying to invade Denmark since the 1880s.

Official statements by the Swiss federal council: 1, 2.

The Most American Country in Europe?

As we approach the US Independence Day, I thought it could be fun considering which country in Europe that would count as the most “American” – and by the way Denmark seems to be the only country which holds an official popular July 4th celebration (as in: a celebration where the local US Embassy is not the organiser).

US-European relations are notoriously tricky. On the one hand, Americans tend to see Europeans as more cultured and sophisticated while on the other hand deploring their (our) lack of initiative. Europeans see Americans as shallow and materialistic and consequently do everything that is in our power to emulate the US lifestyle with a couple of years’ delay.

OK: Our cars and houses are still smaller, but you get the picture.

But to round up some suspects and criteria: What does it take to be “an American country”?

First, we could be looking for a country which in some way or the other has influenced US culture and social and political institutions in a significant way. Britain (legal system) and France (rationalism, republicanism) would be obvious suspects, but perhaps the Netherlands also merit some attention.

Second, we could look for countries where American social, economic and political influence has been especially profound. The Federal Republic of Germany with its emphasis on federalism and the role played by the Bundesverfassungsgericht would be an obvious candidate here.

Third, we could look for countries which institutional similarities even if there is no evidence of direct US influence. Switzerland with its profoundly federal style of government and limited public sector would be a parallel on this side of the Atlantic. But then again, the Swiss are probably too organised and exclusive for the American taste.

But, just to tease you, I will promise two more posts on the subject with some surprising candidates. Stay tooned.