There are few countries where democracy really works, and usually it is because of a high level education, a unified general culture, and a high level of affluence, with little or no real poverty. Switzerland, with its four official languages, relatively high number of immigrants, many of them refugees from persecution elsewhere, is an exception, but it has a history unlike any other country: set up after the Congress of Vienna, as a group of small ethnic groups in an inhospitable mountainous landscape on condition it committed itself to specialise in highly individual products, such as watches, clocks and luxury chocolate, alpine carpentry, and a little later, touristic pursuits such as hiking, skiing, mountain climbing and elegant hotel keeping.

Now it is under fire for its democratic decision by popular referendum to ban the building of any more minarets for its recently arrived Muslim population, mainly on the grounds of freedom of speech and civil rights.

Political correctness without much thought behind it is the reason given for the objections. But what is freedom? John Stuart Mill defined the limits of freedom as being when one person’s freedom encroached on another’s. There is not necessarily a freedom to proselytise, and certainly not by force. The purpose of a minaret is to do exactly that. Islam has always been a proselytising religion. It is just over a century since France stopped all religious teaching in State schools on the grounds that it created differences and conflict; religion should be for the family and whatever day is set aside for it, and education should be for all.

Wars and conflict between different branches of humanity have either been brought about by rationalism and the desire to dominate others by conquest or else they have been religious. No one wishes to ban Mosques in Switzerland, where the faith can be practised by those who choose to do so. But minarets are there to intimidate as public monuments. I am not aware of any cross-adorned churches in Saudi-Arabia or many other Islamic countries, although I am sure that some of the oldest Christian populations in the world hold their services there. The real intolerance is always from those who have a faith against those who choose to be secular.

It is in the nature of every faith-religion, especially the non-philosophical ones that are monotheistic, to believe that they have a monopoly on the truth and everyone else is wrong. Where there is a single faith there is always an intolerance of all the others. This then takes on every form of persecution, often violence and killing. In all history no cruelty is greater than that of religious wars. The Bible is full of it, the Crusades and the conquests of the early Mohamedans, the Inter-Christian wars that followed the Reformation-conflicts which continue today sporadically-are dire examples.

I think that the Swiss referendum was not thoughtless, but based on an understanding of the past, a recognition of how Swiss, who have co-existed as Calvinists, Catholics, Jews and under many other faiths, including a Romany gypsy faith of sorts, have become a prosperous and tolerant nation, an example to their neighbours. Islamic Swiss are not threatened, but others do not want the visible evidence of being threatened by one of their minorities.

John Calder 30/11/09