Democracy and minarets

If we define democracy as a way for the will of the majority to be carried into law, then the recent Swiss vote banning minarets is an example of democracy. Plenty of analogies exist in Western Europe – such as the French ban on religious symbols in schools. What offends, it seems, many democrats is that this is a measure directed by one section of voters against another section which maintains a deliberately separate identity.

We on the Left know very well that this measure, far from being a triumph for democracy – except in the formal sense – serves only to divide the people of Switzerland one from another. If democracy is merely about the relationship of individuals to authority then I’m wrong, but if democracy is about associative relationships and how we collectively relate to authority, then the Swiss have weakened that associative relationship and its collective relationship with the Swiss state.

The populist party which called for the referendum to ban minarets, as the most obvious sign of ‘Islamisation’, now knows that the Swiss people can be divided and scapegoats for the ills of our social system blamed, as a way to avoid changing the really key elements of that system. In this sense too, democracy is weakened, because democracy can only really proceed from a correct understanding of, for want of a better phrase, how things work. This is one of the key problems with a democracy based on capitalism.

Issues can be manufactured which have only a tentative relationship to reality, but about which people feel strongly enough to throw their time and energy into campaigning about (on either side). We see this in the US all the time, the apotheosis of which is ‘astroturfing’, where those with a lot of PR muscle spend time and money trying to mask their PR operations as ‘grassroots’ behaviour – such as Californian ‘big water’ recently, in a continuing attempt to ignore clean water guidelines and grab more public trust water through groups such as the “Latino Water Coalition”.

Or, more famously, the tea-baggers and their march on DC. Some seventy thousand people (amply subsidised by big business so they could all get to the march) genuinely believed that Obama is a socialist, who is going to make the country worse than the Soviet Union. It’s the ‘democratic’ right of people to express their beliefs, but these beliefs clearly aren’t based on rational argument or, dare I say, reality. And that makes the whole process less democratic and more responsive to material investments in PR, to further the cloud of lies and half-truths.

It does this by breaking down the associative ties which can be used to counteract media untruths, bias, selective reporting and the range of other features of our mass information networks that prevent some people forming a totally cogent view of the world. Whereas a properly integrated Islamic group might have pursued a ‘mass strategy’ of public meetings to discuss the issue and reassure the Swiss people – indeed co-opt their support in a defence of religious liberalism – instead, this field of activism was vacated and the far right occupied it.

The Swiss People’s Party gathered one hundred thousand signatures, amongst a population of about eight million, in the 18 months stipulated by Swiss law.

Now, as a result of all this, the Swiss People’s Party hold themselves up as paragons of democracy, as no doubt they will be held up by others of a right-wing persuasion. In actual fact, they were simply better able to work off the perversions of democracy intrinsic to capitalism, and the weak associative bonds that a system of private ownership of business fosters.

Further reading: Left Outside (edited version at LibCon), Paul Sagar, Old Holborn, Jim Jepps, Methodist Preacher and Derek Wall.

  1. Robert
    November 30, 2009 at 10:39 am

    I happen to agree with it, I do not want these I do not know, minarets all over the place, take over an empty church we have a few down here.

    My worry is what next the call to prayer.

    Am I racist I getting that way of late, anyone who says he is New labour I hate.

  2. November 30, 2009 at 10:40 am

    Why shouldn’t we allow minarets Robert?

  3. November 30, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Erm, Robert. The referendum wasn’t about minarets, of which there are currently 4 in Switzerland. You do’nt get get a turnout of 53%, much higher than the usual 40% for referenda there, to vote on an architectural feature. oh, and a church bell ringing is often a call to prayer. That’s why churches have bells (Swiss cows also have bells, but apparently that’s not an invasive noise).

    In a funny sort of way, this vote is useful in that it highlights where liberal democracy, expressed as ‘the will of the people’ or whatever, stands in relation to real power relations.

  4. November 30, 2009 at 12:42 pm


    Your comment reminds me a bit of the West Wing where Jed Bartlett says “is there an epidemic of flag-burning going on that no-one told me about?”

    Minarets are clearly not springing up all over the place. We’d have noticed.

  5. November 30, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    And even if they were, what’s the problem? I think Dunc over at LibCon, in the comments section, hits on one of the practical problems of banning minarets.

    As the call to prayer is already barred under noise pollution legislation, what functions as a minaret? There are plenty of structures that are Italian in origin very similar to what we traditionally regard as minaret-like, but not attached to a Mosque.

    So what is it this law will ban? I think it’s pretty clear that it’s a sign of Islamophobia, part of the wider culture war spreading across Europe; whether its directly anti-immigrant as in the Netherlands, portrayed as a defence of secularism as in France or whatever.

    And that’s where my article comes in; this is a departure from the ‘real’ situation, since only four minarets even exist in Switzerland, as Paul said – and it’s that ‘real’ which we need earnestly to look at.

  6. November 30, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    “We on the Left know very well that this measure, far from being a triumph for democracy – except in the formal sense – serves only to divide the people of Switzerland one from another.”

    Nice to see Hegelian idealism is alive and kicking.

    Not so nice to assume its hegemony on the Left.

    I’m on the Left, and I’d rather not define democracy in terms of uniting the people (the proletariat?) in (class-based?) solidarity contra authority. No, I’d rather say that the Swiss vote was a democratic outcome, but that in this case, we didn’t like the democratic outcome. In other words: I’d rather face-down the reality that although democracy is the best system, it sometimes results in bad/undesirable outcomes.

    And I’d rather not be told that this viewpoint is either not of ‘the left’, or that secretly I know that democracy is really about Marxian-Hegelian idealism.

    Cos that’s sort of insulting to me.

  7. November 30, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Not entirely sure what you’re on about with regard to “Hegelian idealism” Paul; some clarification please.

    As for ‘facing down the reality’ of this referendum, it’s all very well to say that sometimes democracy results in undesirable outcomes but that takes us no closer to understanding why it does this. Thus your comment is operating on a different level of interpretation to my article, because I’m positing an explanation as to why.

    Whether or not you consider your viewpoint to be “Left” or not, and feel insulted if told differently, is a matter of complete indifference to me. Suffice it to say that on this blog, I choose to use “the Left” as short-hand for those who will defend popular movements against the encroachment of the State and Capital. I don’t think the campaign of the People’s Party qualifies, on the grounds I have laid out above.

    Incidentally, “The Left” is one of those amorphous terms which different people use in different ways; if you don’t like the way I use it, might I introduce you to the “Back” button on your browser window?

  8. November 30, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    I agree with you Dave. From my research long-term Democratic Capitalism is an unsustainable concept because of the inevitable commodification of information. As the dissemination of information within any democratic society becomes commodified it, as with wealth, becomes centralized and works against the individuals within society and in favor of those in possession of the means to distribute.

  9. December 1, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    Come now, there’s no need to be so rude.

    Re Hegelian idealism: yours is clearly a Marxian interpretation of “democracy”, ergo it is, at root, one which draws upon Hegelian idealism.

    And I’m not sure it’s a very wise – or for that matter, polite – strategy that when you are challenged about your definitions of what is “left” or otherwise, and whether it’s appropriate for you to cordon-off the very complex concept of democracy under your own definitions which may be exclusive of fellow travellers, you then proceed to offer a reply which consists, essentially, of the words “fuck off”.


  10. December 1, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    I thought my level of rudeness was commensurate with your own disparaging comments.

    Yes, mine is clearly a Marxist interpretation of democracy, but I don’t see that it follows that this draws on Hegelian idealism; indeed it was my understanding that one of Marx’ key points was to reverse the ‘idealist’ conception of Hegel’s world spirit to base it on materialism. Which is why I asked for clarification. All you have done is repeat what you said.

    As for the wisdom or politeness of ‘cordoning off the very complex concept of democracy’, or the definition of what is Left, using my own assumptions, whose assumptions would you prefer I used? With what democracy is, at least, I don’t think that’s what I did; I offered an explanation, you made an objection and I explained why I don’t think you’re challenging my explanation at all. To which you haven’t offered a reply.

    On “what is Left”, I offered my own definition as to what is Left; you’re entitled to offer yours, but all we’ve done is just that. So why should either of us feel inclined to change our position?

  1. November 30, 2009 at 10:31 pm
  2. December 1, 2009 at 8:20 pm

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