Swiss rolled

As regular readers will know, I do a lot of work in Switzerland. I’m the author of the Rough Guide and have written dozens of articles over the years about travelling in Switzerland. I’ve got a soft spot for the place – but the Swiss need help. They’re afraid. The largest party in the Swiss parliament, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), have exploited the politics of fear to call – and win – a referendum banning the construction of minarets. On a 53% turnout, 57.5% voted in favour.

The repulsive SVP, who’ve used what the Financial Times called “strident populism” to target ‘foreigners’ of all kinds in Switzerland as criminals, benefit cheats or worse, kicked off the campaign with the poster opposite: “Stop! Yes to the minaret ban”. Look at the imagery: minarets as missiles, women as menacing, the burqa as concealment, black as a threat, the Swiss flag cast into shadow from the east, the cross obliterated.

In response, this poster from the Swiss Inter-Faith Association has its head – literally – in the clouds. “The heavens over Switzerland are big enough”. Does this allay the fears sparked by the first poster. Not even close. Dreamy, drifty, irrelevant.

The fearmongers came back with another minaret as missile, this time punching straight through the heart of the Swiss cross (right).

The odious Federal Democratic Union chipped in with this crude depiction (left) of an out-of-scale minaret towering over medieval Swiss architecture – the politics of fear, again. Not appeals to the heart, or intellectual symbolism: plain “this is how it will be”. The tagline translates as “Everything’s fine without minarets”, or “Minarets aren’t necessary”.






So the Society of Minorities hit back hard with, er, this child’s game of “name the flag” (right). Colourful but utterly incoherent. “States where religious freedom is restricted” is the headline. “Don’t let it get this far,” they plead, placing Switzerland beside Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Aside from the questionable reasoning here – promote liberalism in your own country by condemning the lack of it elsewhere – who thought that this poster would mean ANYthing to ANYbody?

Whereas this – a big fat ugly minaret displacing the much-loved medieval Wasserturm tower in central Lucerne (left) – needs no words of explanation. Though, handily, the Lucerne racists have helpfully added “Stop Islamisation!” to ram their message home.







So liberal politicians decided the gloves were off, and produced, er, this (right). “Stop the madness”. More woolly-headed bleeding-heart begging, allied to more inexplicable graphic nonsense. As if showing religious architecture rubbed out like this means anything. Does this outrage, in the way the Lucerne image outrages? Or the minarets-as-missiles poster outrages? Not even close.






And this (left) – “Equal Rights for All” – just makes me angry. What the hell are they doing, coming up with incoherent, metaphorical rubbish like this?



And this (right) – “Religious freedom not culture war”. Very persuasive, I don’t think. Looks like something a student union would hand out.


Or this (left) – “Let’s vote no, for a fraternal Switzerland”. But why, for God’s sake? Tell me why should I vote no!









And finally, the crowning ignominy (right): the Green party in the Aargau region decided that if they couldn’t beat the racists, they’d join them. Deciding to mix the minaret vote with another referendum about defence procurement, they placed a minaret side by side with a missile, and served up two contradictory calls-to-action.

And Swiss liberals wonder why they lost the vote. A miserable failure to connect with the issue, address the fears stoked by the racist right or even design poster campaigns with an ounce of wit or visual pull. Liberal fail equals racist supremacy.

See the campaign posters here.


  1. Stephen Gash

    Quote: “Though, handily, the Lucerne racists have helpfully added “Stop Islamisation!” to ram their message home.”

    Would you care to explain the nature of the “racism” exactly?

    The Society of Minorities’s poster was excellent. It said it all. We’ll probably use it. Do you have a link to their site?

  2. Matthew Teller

    Delighted to. You’ll agree that the image you pinpoint is not a true representation of a likely scenario – that the Wasserturm will be demolished and a minaret of this stature put in its place?

    Then you’ll also agree, I imagine, that this fictitious scene is intended to inspire outrage in those who view it, at the thought of Islam (represented by the minaret) displacing the culture and atmosphere of traditional Lucerne (represented by the fallen tower, the 14th-century wooden Chapel Bridge to the right and the Jesuit church in the background).

    To be clear – the responses that the designers wish to engender by creating this fiction are outrage and loathing at the ‘foreignness’ of the scene.

    You’ll also agree, I hope, that a poster designed to evoke outrage and loathing at the prospect of a foreign cultural implant in the viewer’s home city qualifies as xenophobic in its aims and ideals.

    If you do, then since this particular expression of xenophobia was not made in isolation, but rather in the context of a political campaign specifically targeted at the suppression of the cultural attributes of one particular religious group, it therefore crosses the line from mere xenophobia to become an active attempt to influence public opinion and therefore collude in that public act of cultural suppression.

    Political suppression, in the public arena, of one cultural group on the grounds of that group’s religion is persecution.

    Persecution on religious grounds is racist.

    And no, I don’t have a link to the Swiss Society of Minorities.

  3. Laura

    Perhaps the opposing side was too complacent- from what I’ve read it seems like they assumed the measure would never pass in the first place. They probably just didn’t try very hard.

    That said, I’m not sure what they could have done. It seems unfortunately very easy to provoke fear with a poster. I’m not sure how to provoke the opposite, or undo the fear with such a simple medium.

  4. Matthew Teller

    Thanks for your comment, Laura. It’s a fair point, but I disagree. The clouds poster was trying to ‘provoke the opposite’, that is, a calm sense of perspective. It failed because it was too abstract, but the motivation was right.

    Something more concrete would have worked better – perhaps an image of ordinary Swiss people going to pray in a minaret-less mosque, with the statistic that of more than 200 mosques in Switzerland currently, only 4 have minarets (i.e. mosques aren’t scary).

    Or an image of a Swiss workplace, or a cafe, or a cinema audience, showing a diversity of ethnicities and styles of dress (i.e. Muslims aren’t scary).

    Or an image to engender pride in the nation – Switzerland as a place of welcome, security and prosperity for all (i.e. ‘yes we can’).

    Let’s face it – there are any number of ways to defuse the kinds of fears that racists like to whip up – because those fears (of being swamped, of cultural miscegenation, of loss of identity, of otherness) are essentially groundless. They are childish fears of monsters under the bed. In an adult they strike me as akin to mental illness. In a society they are like a form of mass hysteria.

    Take the racist arguments, address them line by line, pick them apart and expose them. Take their single images, and counter them with single images. Most of all, laugh at them, because they are ridiculous little people.

    You’re right about complacency. This vote highlights a depth of smugness, docility and apathy on the part of the Swiss establishment that has shocked even me (and I’ve spent a LOT of time in Switzerland). That’s why I posted. Not to challenge the racists, but to shame the anti-racists. They have failed their country, and the world.

  5. Hicham Maged

    The result of the vote reflected this perfectly; following political discourses that found stereotypes a good base for them to stand, and thus falling into the trap of fear.

    If you’re following reactions on the internet, you shall discover also that people start arguing about how to describe this; i.e. whether it is “xenophobia”, “racist”or just stop by “hey it is Swiss democracy” but no arguments about problem(s) led to this result in a country like Switzerland.

    You’ve perfectly went beyond this, and here I am recalling Tariq Ramadan’s commentary on this too. Finally, I’ve blogged about this issue three days ago and you are welcomed to read.

  6. Matthew Teller

    hi Hicham – thanks for your comment. I’ve left a note on your blog – very interesting to read what you say.

    As Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian, I’m interested to see what might happen for Friday prayers in Switzerland tomorrow – I wonder how Swiss Muslims (and non-Muslims) will react to the vote.

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