Every European country has its specific symbols or topics through which European Muslims are targeted. In France it is the head scarf or burqa; in Germany, mosques; in Britain, violence; cartoons in Denmark; homosexuality in the Netherlands – and so on.
It is important to look beyond these symbols and understand what is really happening in Europe in general and in Switzerland in particular: While European countries and citizens are going through a real and deep identity crisis, the new visibility of Muslims is problematic – and it is scary.
At the very moment Europeans find themselves asking, in a globalizing, migratory world, "What are our roots?," "Who are we?," "What will our future look like?," they see around them new citizens, new skin colors, new symbols to which they are unaccustomed.
Over the last two decades Islam has become connected to so many controversial debates – violence, extremism, freedom of speech, gender discrimination, and forced marriage, to name a few – it is difficult for ordinary citizens to embrace this new Muslim presence as a positive factor.
There is a great deal of fear and a palpable mistrust. Who are they? What do they want? And the questions are charged with further suspicion as the idea of Islam being an expansionist religion is intoned. Do these people want to Islamize our country?
The campaign against the minarets was fueled by just these anxieties and allegations. Voters were drawn to the cause by a manipulative appeal to popular fears and emotions.
Posters featured a woman wearing a burqa with the minarets drawn as weapons on a colonized Swiss flag. The claim was made that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with Swiss values. (The UDC has in the past demanded my citizenship be revoked because I was defending Islamic values too openly.) Its media strategy was simple but effective.