Would Americans vote to ban minarets?

The concensus on this weekend’s Swiss minaret ban seems to be that it “heralds a new surge in populist, anti-immigrant sentiment,” and contradicts Switzerland’s images as “a place where peace, democracy and human rights are valued above all else.” There are a few problems with this narrative. First, the “famously tolerant” Swiss didn’t just suddenly ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
576139_091130_minaret2.jpg
576139_091130_minaret2.jpg
Children passe by a mosque is pictured on November 30, 2009 in Zurich. World opinion condemned Switzerland for approving a ban on the building of minarets, with neighbouring governments attacking what they called a demonstration of fear-driven prejudice. AFP PHOTO / SEBASTIEN BOZON (Photo credit should read SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty Images)

The concensus on this weekend's Swiss minaret ban seems to be that it "heralds a new surge in populist, anti-immigrant sentiment," and contradicts Switzerland's images as "a place where peace, democracy and human rights are valued above all else." There are a few problems with this narrative.

First, the "famously tolerant" Swiss didn't just suddenly become paranoid xenophobes last weekend. The Swiss People's Party, the primary sponsors of this referendum, succeeding in essentially banning non-European unskilled immigration drastically increasing requirements for asylum speakers in through a referendum in 2006 and won a national election the following year on the strength of highly enlightened policy ideas like this one.

The concensus on this weekend’s Swiss minaret ban seems to be that it “heralds a new surge in populist, anti-immigrant sentiment,” and contradicts Switzerland’s images as “a place where peace, democracy and human rights are valued above all else.” There are a few problems with this narrative.

First, the “famously tolerant” Swiss didn’t just suddenly become paranoid xenophobes last weekend. The Swiss People’s Party, the primary sponsors of this referendum, succeeding in essentially banning non-European unskilled immigration drastically increasing requirements for asylum speakers in through a referendum in 2006 and won a national election the following year on the strength of highly enlightened policy ideas like this one.

Second, despite the international shock and hand-wringing over the Swiss vote, I’m not sure that citizens of other Western countries would vote that differently if given the chance. The German media is already ruminating about this question. More than anything, the Swiss decision made me think about the survey data collected in Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson’s recent FP piece, written in the wake of the Ft. Hood shooting:

According to a 2006 Gallup poll, a third of Americans admire “nothing” about the Muslim world. Nearly half of all Americans believe the U.S. government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslims. A July 2007 Newsweek survey indicated that 46 percent of Americans think that the United States is accepting too many Muslim immigrants, 32 percent consider American Muslims less loyal to the United States than they are to Islam, 28 percent believe that the Koran condones violence, 41 percent are convinced that Islamic culture “glorifies suicide,” 54 percent are “worried” about Islamic jihadists in the U.S., and 52 percent support FBI surveillance of mosques.

In light of these attitudes — and ignoring whether the courts would strike such a law down as unconstitutional — is it absurd to think that a well-organized, well-funded ballot initiative to ban minarets would have a chance of passing in many U.S. states?

I don’t mean to suggest that Americans are either more or less anti-Islamic or xenophobic than the Swiss, but I do think there’s someting to Tyler Cowen’s argument that, “Sooner or later an open referendum process will get even a very smart, well-educated country into trouble.”

SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty Images

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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