Politics & Media
Dec 01, 2009, 07:37AM

The Murky Moral Waters of Public Referenda

The wisdom of crowds has a tendency to reveal its own prejudices.

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It’s difficult reconciling popular opinion with the moral issues of the day. Vox populi, as they say, is the voice of god—and yet on issues of social tolerance that simply isn’t the case.

The reelection of President Bush in 2004 was bitter for Democrats, and not just in the obvious sense that they lost. Despite the Iraq War’s dubious relationship with reality and one of the largest expansions of the Federal Government in US history, Karl Rove and Co. were able to deftly channel conservative America’s abiding prejudice against homosexuals by encouraging anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives in 11 states. All passed. The 2008 election of President Obama came with the dregs of a bitter and ongoing referendum fight in California over gay marriage as well.

Opponents of gay marriage claim the institution of marriage—an institution wherein half of marriages end in divorce—will be undermined should homosexuals be afforded the right to marry. They make the thoroughly debunked claim that gay marriage will create a bureaucratic and legal implosion; but overall homosexuality is still this thing to be denied and swept under the rug. The public referendum is a popular tool—indeed, what could be a more legitimate way to delegitimize equality: “Well, the people have voted for it.”

Recently, citizens of Switzerland voted to ban any further construction of minarets—the ubiquitous architectural feature of mosques. Right wing politician Ulrich Schluer from the Swiss People's Party was quoted as saying:

We do not forbid Islam—we forbid the political symbol of Islamization, and this is the minaret … The minaret has nothing to do with religion; the minaret is a symbol of political victory [of Islam]. The first thing the Turks did when they conquered Constinople [sic]—they installed a minaret on the top of the most important church.

Such a blatant paucity of intellectual argument is stunning, defying any high school student’s notion of moral relativism. In claiming “minarets are symbols of rising Muslim political and religious power that could eventually turn Switzerland into an Islamic nation,” the Swiss People’s Party establishes a transparent double standard toward Muslims—as if the Christian cross or the Jewish Star of David have never been synonymous with violence. The Swiss government “urged voters to reject the proposed ban on new minarets, saying it would violate religious freedom and human rights, as well as potentially provoking Islamist radicalism and harming Switzerland’s image.” But with the passing of the initiative, the government has stated that it “respects the decision of the voters.”

That “respect” is a complete moral failing of the Swiss government. It calls into question its ability to not only represent the people of Switzerland politically, but ethically as well. In reversing its position, the government has undermined its ethical responsibilities on an international stage. Even if the referendum were reversed, the reality of its passing is a major blow to Arab- and Islamic-European relations at a time when such gaffes—such blind projections of intolerance—are least needed.
The Swiss federal council was quoted as saying, "This does not mean rejection of the Muslim community, its religion or its culture … The federal council will make sure of that. Religious peace is an essential element that has made the success of Switzerland." That statement means nothing to Muslim populations across Europe who now can only wonder when similar referenda come to their countries.

Andrew Sullivan recently posted a reader’s response to the issue:

To this agnostic Buddhist-leaning Massachusetts Democrat, the response of the Swiss makes perfect sense … The 2009 estimated population of Switzerland is 7.7 million. The article you link says there are 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland. That makes 5.19% of the population. Why should the other 94.81% of the population agree to the building of towers whose function is to broadcast foreign peoples’ foreign language calls-to-prayer five times a day? Can you think of a clumsier way for 5% of the population to piss off the other 95%? I have no problem with anyone wanting to practice his or her religion so long as it hurts no one else. And I also have no problem with the Swiss being unwilling to listen to “Allahu akbar, etc.” at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and nightfall. The Roman Catholic church down the street from me has a carillon that rings the hours. I like it; it’s pretty and it provides a useful function for the entire neighborhood.

The reader doesn’t live in Switzerland, and so doesn’t know that the minarets in question don’t conduct the call to prayer. But the knee-jerk response follows the same bigoted reasoning as the Swiss People’s Party and the anti-gay marriage opponents—some religions are more equal than others, gay/Muslim culture “hurts” the majority by ramming its values down everyone’s throats.

In the US, public referenda would have kept schools and water fountains segregated, denied women and African Americans the right to vote, and would have prevented the integration of the military. Indeed, in 1971 a majority of Swiss men denied women the right to vote—one wonders if the Swiss government would contenance such a measure now. It's impossible to draw a clear moral line in these cases, and one struggles to avoid the "I know it when I see it" line. Simply put, sometimes elected officials in any country are required to represent the pure ideals of their constitutions, even if such a stance is in opposition to a majority of the public. Elected US officials dedicate their service not just to their constituents, but also to the Constitution on which they swear their fidelity—an oath to uphold the tenets that guarantee life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; freedom of speech, expression and religion. No matter the populist nature of referenda: no population, majority of minority, has the right to subvert any of the freedoms available to the public.

I hope the Swiss judicial system will step in and prevent the minaret-banning referendum from becoming law. But the damage is done, and in a continent seething with anti-immigration sentiment this act serves as a severe setback for religious and racial tolerance as well as an erosion of fundamental human principles.

  • Your argument is detailed and persuasive. But here's the question you didn't answer: if the people are so wrong, do you think we should having voting at all? That seems to be where you're heading.

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  • I was struck by the hypocrisy in the comment made by the "agnostic Buddhist-leaning Massachusetts Democrat"... To say "And I also have no problem with the Swiss being unwilling to listen to “Allahu akbar, etc.” at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and nightfall. The Roman Catholic church down the street from me has a carillon that rings the hours. I like it; it’s pretty and it provides a useful function for the entire neighborhood."... It just strikes me as ironically subjective. I would argue that church bells ringing every hour is a far greater distraction than only 5 calls to prayer a day. I have a watch, church bells clamoring is not useful to me. But am I complaining? No! Mosques are usually located in Muslim neighborhoods anyways, where the call to prayer IS useful. And who is he to say what sounds pretty to the general population? I am a spiritual non-leaning Michigan Democrat and I find it to be a beautiful reminder of the progress that our country has made in pursuing the ideal of religious freedom our country was founded upon. The practice of Catholic churches ringing every hour IS also a traditional call to Christian prayer, when monks rose every hour through the night to pray. Finally, ASK is not, to me, at all arguing that we abolish the vote. What his article says to me is that he condemns the practice of allowing issues that violate individuals' rights to be put to a popular vote.

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