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Minaret vote was a "lesson in civic spirit"

Freysinger feels the vote switched quickly from minarets to direct democracy in Switzerland

Freysinger feels the vote switched quickly from minarets to direct democracy in Switzerland

(Keystone)

Two weeks after voters approved a ban on minaret construction, the rightwing Swiss People’s Party deputy Oskar Freysinger gives his reading of events.

In French-speaking Switzerland Freysinger became the voice of the yes side. He recently defended the minaret ban, accepted by 57.5 per cent of voters on November 29, in a debate on the Arab television channel al-Jazeera.

Freysinger rejects outright the argument that the yes vote stemmed from fear and ignorance and he deplores the fact that people have used the result to attack direct democracy.

swissinfo.ch: The anti-minaret vote has provoked a huge amount of comment and criticism both in Switzerland and abroad. What struck you most from what has been said and written on this subject?

Oskar Freysinger: What stays with me, is that the focus slipped very quickly from minarets to direct democracy. Two camps emerged: the elite who said that direct democracy was anti-democratic and against human rights, which is a total paradox, and the defenders of popular rights, who, while recognising that it is not ideal, nonetheless think that the system is the best possible, because it allows people to feel involved and to have an outlet of expression.

In Europe, people envy us. I’ve received a huge number of emails from France and elsewhere. People regret that they do not have the instruments to allow them to express their will. In fact Switzerland, at the heart of Europe, has just given an incredible lesson in civic spirit, against the politically correct, against the elites, against the media and against the monumental pressure of uniform thought. That could give ideas to the people who surround us, and that is feared by the European intelligentsia.

swissinfo.ch: But are the people truly always right? Can they not also make mistakes?

O.F.: Let’s say it's like the dogma of papal infallibility: the pope is always right in questions of faith, not in the absolute. The people are always right because the system makes them right. Determining who is right and wrong is always complex.

As a politician I have lost plenty of votes with the electorate. You have to accept it and deal with the situation, even if that is extremely difficult, as with the free movement of people [between the EU and Switzerland] today.

swissinfo.ch: A lot has been said about this being a vote based on fear. What is your take on that?

O.F.: Based on the thousands of messages and reactions I received, I can detect the tendencies. Throughout the campaign, it was not fear that dominated but a cool reflection, relatively specific and neutral in tone about what Islam is and its doctrinal incompatibility with our state based on law. On this subject I also received some information that was useful to me during the debate. It is not therefore a purely irrational and ill-informed vote, as has often been said.

As for the yes voters, some of them are proponents of self-determination who believe that our identity should be protected during this time of open borders which make it impossible to regulate migration flows. There was also the yes vote of the Catholics who did not follow their leaders, as well as a yes vote by women. Many of them told me that they never vote for the People’s Party, but that on this subject, they felt the threat of a particularly patriarchal religion.

swissinfo.ch: Several recommendations have been made, the creation of a constitutional court, a new article on tolerance, in a effort to ”correct” this vote. What do you think of that?

O.F.: The decision of the people acts as law. If we want to change this article in a few years’ time because Islam no longer presents a problem, the people alone will be able to modify the situation. Replacing the vote by an article that covers everything, which would have the disadvantage of penalising all religions would be superfluous because tolerance is already enshrined in the Constitution and Swiss laws.

As for a constitutional court, it is a system imaginable in a country where the parliament alone determines the laws. But in Switzerland the people are sovereign. Introducing a system like that would go back to muzzling the people. In any case, what makes lawyers better able to distinguish what is for the best or worst for the citizens?

swissinfo.ch: What would you say to those who reproach you for having taken the risk, with this initiative, of destabilising the peaceful integration of Muslims in Switzerland, most of whom are non-practising, and making them turn inwards to their community?

O.F.: This complaint does not hold up. I distinguish three categories among Muslims. The non-practising, who, by definition, are free from religion and therefore indifferent to the presence or not of a minaret or even a mosque. Then there are those who live the religion as a personal choice and a private affair. These are the ones who pay today for the damage inflicted by the third category, that is those who do not accept that civil law should be placed above religious dogma. Financed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, this fringe, the most demanding, also bears a responsibility in this vote.

swissinfo.ch: The day after the yes vote, several extreme right parties in Europe welcomed your initiative. What are your ideological affinities and differences with these movements?

O.F.: I’ve heard this confusion with the extreme right and fascism for a long time. But the differences are substantial. The first is that the People’s Party defends democracy and the state of law absolutely without restriction. Another difference, we do not believe you should reject the other simply because he is different, that is racism and xenophobia.

On the contrary, the behaviour of a person who comes to Switzerland is not irrelevant. What gets us branded as racists is that we attack the dysfunctional behaviour imported through immigration. But it is the behaviour that we denounce, and not the colour of the skin or where the person comes from.

Carole Wälti, swissinfo.ch (translated by Clare O'Dea)

Context

Switzerland is the first European country to ban the construction of minarets.

On November 29, 57.5% of votes cast were in favour of a people's initiative to add a line to the Constitution: “Against the construction of minarets”.

Several building projects for minarets in the German-speaking part of Switzerland were the catalyst for the initiative.

The anti-minaret initiative was launched by a committee formed by members of the Swiss People's Party and the small rightwing Christian party the Federal Democratic Union.

The Muslim community accounts for about 4.5% of the Swiss population and includes up to 100 nationalities.

There are about 200 mosques and prayer rooms in Switzerland, but only four have a minaret.

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Oskar Freysinger

Entered parliament in 2003.

Resident in canton Valais, he founded its branch of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party in 1999.

His political priorities are the defence of popular rights, naturalisations subject to vote by local residents, improving security through the expulsion of criminal foreigners, combating the legalisation of drugs and the repeal of anti-racism legislation.

Freysinger is a high school teacher.

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