Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bitter Swiss Chocolates?

In a rather drastic referendum, the voters of Switzerland recently passed a measure to ban the building of new minarets. In response, there has been no shortage of condemnation of this development from various quarters across Europe and elsewhere. It is of course surprising to many advocates of pluralism and religious tolerance that a nation so steeped in the values of tolerance and its unique approach to neutral internationalism has embarked on an undertaking so seemingly contrary to its traditions.

Mind you, I don’t intend here to indulge in the obvious (and I think pedantic and shallow) rhetoric of condemning the Swiss. Instead, I couldn’t help but be struck by the chorus of condemnation that flowed out of some of the most religiously intolerant nations. Specifically, to read that Indonesia, Pakistan, and Egypt, among others were lashing out at the Swiss for their apparent religious intolerance was difficult for me to swallow. In case you need reminding, these are also countries where religious minorities – be they Christians, Hindus or others – are – and have been for decades - systematically persecuted and blatantly discriminated against.

As a case in point, Pakistan – since its formation – has been engaged in policy of marginalising Hindus and Christians. Hindu temples have been repeated come under attack, denied permits for renewal and upgrading, and left to deteriorate in disrepair and neglect.

The situation is no less suffocating for religious minorities in countries such as Egypt, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and in other parts of the Muslim world. I always thought that one should be careful about stoning others especially when one is personally living in a glass house.

Whatever the basis and motivations – real or imagined – behind the action of the Swiss voters, it is also time for many of these same Pakistanis, Egyptians and others to appreciate that respect is earned. Without mutual respect, co-existence becomes hollow. It's really not that complicated.

But never mind the passions involved; I have a strange feeling that even without new minarets appearing in the Swiss landscape, a not insignificant number of Pakistanis, Egyptians, and Indonesians will still be just as fond of Swiss watches and chocolates, while the super rich in these countries will be vacationing in Swiss resorts and protecting their loot in Swiss banks.

G. Krishnan