Vom Schächt- zum Minarettenverbot. Religiöse Minderheiten in der direkten Demokratie


Vom Schächt- zum Minarettenverbot. Religiöse Minderheiten in der direkten Demokratie
Vatter, Adrian ( Hrsg .) Zürich : Neue Zürcher Zeitung ( 2011 ), 317 p . , ISBN 978-3-03823-671-9

1. Introduction

On the 29th of November, 2009, Swiss citizens voted to ban the construction of minarets. The book entitled “Vom Schächt- zum Minarettenverbot. Religiöse Minderheiten in der direkten Demokratie” attempts to give an explanation of this popular vote. To that end, the authors empirically investigate whether direct democracy discriminates against religious minorities. The book is structured by three approaches: the policy approach focusing on the content of a vote and the target minority; the politics approach aiming to understand the decision-making process before the vote; and the polity approach focusing on the explanation of voting results through the analysis of the institutional frame and socio-economic contexts.

In chapter 2, Denzi Danaci describes how political and socio-demographic variables, group composition in a population, types and legal forms of voting proposal and party coalition explain the voting behaviour regarding religious minorities. He devotes a detailed conceptualisation to the direct (facultative referendum, popular initiative) and indirect effects of direct democracy on the popular vote (debate in parliament, political strategy).

Christian Bolliger describes in chapter 3 that in 1866, the proposal on “the right for free settlement, belief and cult for the Jewish community” was rejected by popular vote in Swiss-German and Catholic cantons, and where large Jewish communities existed. While these factors do not explain the refusal to abolish “the prohibition of religious ritual slathering in 1893” (chapter 4), the strong arguments of the opponents and their use of direct democracy instruments nonetheless weigh heavily. While comparing the popular votes on religious minorities from 1963 to 2007, Danaci (chapter 5) demonstrates how the acceptance of such voting proposals depends on the support of political parties. Furthermore, he shows in chapter 6 that the heterogeneous composition of a population could lead to liberal voting behaviour regarding religious minorities if they are perceived as an in-group.

The reader has to wait a good deal before receiving an answer in chapter 8 to the question: “Why have the Swiss people accepted the ban of minarets?” The authors argue that party identification explains most of the variance in this voting behaviour, whereas attitudes towards foreigners, political interest, gender or religion play a more minor role. Thus despite the fact that young women were the most supportive and they had strong arguments for defending their voting decision. For example, due to the undefined position of the political parties at the centre, the undecided voters followed the clear-cut voting recommendations of the far right wing parties (chapter 9).

Three chapters are devoted to the analysis of the effects of direct democracy on religious minority rights. Anna Christmann (chapter 7) states that if the parliament fears a popular referendum, it tends to be more restrictive regarding minority rights. This indirect effect of direct democracy is further accentuated if Islam is the subject of the debate and extreme right political parties are involved. She concludes in chapter 10 that the people in Switzerland and Germany use the instruments of direct democracy in order to block the construction of Muslim buildings.

Opening the discussion to all types of minorities, Adrian Vatter and Deniz Danaci (chapter 11) show that the popular votes between 1960 and 2007 operated against minorities only if the proposal aimed to increase rights for out-groups. Referring back to the profile of voters in chapter 12, Oliver Krömler and Adrian Vatter find out that, when controlled by political identification, women in cities with a high level of education are more in favour of minorities’ rights than elderly men in the countryside.

In the chapters described above, Adrian Vatter and his colleagues make a considerable contribution to the explanation of popular votes and the understanding of the impact of direct democracy on the protection of minorities. Their clear conceptualisation of the determinants of political behaviour points out the mutual influences between, one’s interest, the socio-geographic context and the institutional frame. Concerning direct democracy, the convincing two-sided conceptualisation of its effects on minority rights (indirect and direct) results in a better understanding of the constraints of this political system on the decision-making process and its general influence on popular votes.

In addition to this conceptual contribution, in-depth empirical analyses of popular votes on minority rights increase our knowledge about the relation between attitudes towards foreigners and political behaviour. The analysis of a large data set clearly shows that the results of popular votes on minority rights depend on the targeted minority. This finding is important for the understanding of the role of minorities in Swiss popular votes because it empirically shows which minority groups are constructed as an out-group in a certain historical context and which might, over time, become in-groups (for example, Catholics). Concerning the explanation of the vote on the ban on minarets, the authors highlight that social actors do not rely on their political identification if they have a clear-cut stance on minarets. This analysis is fascinating because its empirically demonstrates that people are not simply determined by their political identification, but their identification is mobilised as a resource depending on the political issue.

From my point of view, however, “Vom Schächt- zum Minarettenverbot. Religiöse Minderheiten in der direkten Demokratie” suffers from two core weaknesses: the low validity of some of its theoretical concepts and the lack of explanation of its empirical findings. The problem of validity arises in relation to integration and Islamophobia. Integration is operationalised by the length of the presence of a minority in Switzerland, their recognition as a formal-legal unity and their degree of acceptance by the general population. On this basis, the authors argue that the people have a restrictive attitude towards minority rights if the concerned minority is not integrated (Chapter 11). This definition measures the degree of assimilation rather than integration since the scholars define a group as integrated if its members have given up their cultural particularism and are of Swiss origin. Instead of sociologically defining the concept and discussing its historical construction, the authors uncritically reproduce a highly political and problematic conceptualisation of integration. They make reference to the common imaginary of a pure Swiss breed without making clear that this powerful ideological machinery contributes to the racial categorisation of non-western minorities in popular votes. Similarly, the concept Islamophobia is not adequately operationalised since only a single attitude variable (“Not willing to have Muslim neighbours”) is provided as a measure. Therefore, the authors’ attempts to explain their empirical results on Islamophobia remain quite unreliable. Due to the lack of valid operationalisation on integration and Islamophobia, we still do not know what role attitudes towards ethnic minorities play in the ban on minarets. I do believe, however, that this factor may play a crucial role in the climate of generalised anti-Muslim resentment in Europe.

Despite their impressive empirical analysis with different types of data, the authors rely too heavily on a description of their empirical results rather than developed explanations. For instance, they argue that well educated people and the elite are the most tolerant. Knowing the historical and political functions of the elite in producing racism, one wonders on which causal model the authors rely (Goldberg, 1993). Furthermore, the authors fail to discuss the variations between the different findings in each chapter. For instance, in chapter 3, the author postulates that the threat-theory measured by the presence of Jews is crucial for explaining the vote in 1866 on the liberalisation of freedom for Jews. Yet in 1893 (chapter 4), this factor appeared to no longer be relevant. There is no explanation of this difference. The authors also do not explain the differences in the empirical results concerning the role of gender. Whereas women accepted the initiative for the ban on minarets more than men (chapter 8), in general, women in cities with a high level of education are the most favourable towards minorities (chapter 9). Since there is no discussion of this crucial difference, we do not know what impact gender has on political behaviour regarding minority rights.

Concerning the methodology, the absence of any discussion on social desirability is a disappointment. In chapter 8, the authors find that supporters of the ban on minarets argue that they oppose minarets because they represent a symbol of Islam, but that they are not against Muslims. Knowing that social desirability is extremely high in relation to attitudes towards ethnic minorities, we must doubt the validity of this finding as it uses a blatant measure of ethnic attitudes, whereas subtle items would have been more appropriate in this case (see Pettigrew and Meertens, 1995).

Vom Schächt- zum Minarettenverbot. Religiöse Minderheiten in der direkten Demokratie” is worthwhile reading for a greater understanding of how direct democracy tends to be restrictive towards minority rights. It does, however, fail to provide a sufficient explanation of the minarets ban. Even if the authors did not have access to variables such as racist attitudes, it is high time that scholars integrate racism into studies on votes concerning ethnic minorities in Switzerland. Otherwise, we will continue to reduce popular racist votes to the province of the far right and ignore what studies in the USA and UK have shown: the power of racial prejudice across the board in votes on minority rights.