No doubt the Swiss voters thought of themselves as striking a blow against “fundamentalist” or “radical” Islam—but the funny thing is that it’s the most radical versions of Islam that are skeptical of objets d’art like minarets, which didn’t become a feature of the Islamic world until nearly a century after the death of the Prophet. Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, the 18th-century iconoclast who gave his name to the “Wahhabist” variety of Sunni Islam, hated the things. To the point of ordering rather a lot of them knocked down.
It goes without saying that when you scratch the surface of the Swiss minaret controversy, you pretty much find the Charlottetown accord—that is, a generic popular revolt against supercilious elites acting in perceived concert. I’m not sympathetic to religious discrimination in anybody’s law, but I am somewhat sympathetic to the Swiss idea of grassroots democracy, and very sympathetic to the Swiss passion for self-determination. My half-informed guess is that if the liberals in Switzerland had been intelligent enough to resist saying “European human-rights law requires us…” over and over, then a local dispute over minarets might not have exploded into a constitutional struggle. And Switzerland would not now find itself resisting Islam as manifested in, of all things, its architecture—i.e., the one artistic aspect of that faith which has surely contributed the most to the mainstream of European civilization.