The face of European populism is, these days, white and bristly. And it answers to a comic name. Meet "Zottel," the billy goat mascot of the Swiss People's Party (SVP). Zottel, the party's "bleating" heart, was conscripted to enliven October's federal elections; and, as any Swiss will tell you, he's become a celebrity in his own right.
He is familiar across the nation as title character of Alois Carigiet's "Zottel, Zick und Zwerg" (Anton the Goatherd), 1966 winner of the Swiss Youth Book prize. But most important, he is the party's partial answer to the question, posed by Samuel Huntington, of "Who Are We?" For reasons of Zottel's folksy appeal, and as much for his party's electoral weight, critical journalists have begun to describe Switzerland a "laboratory for populists." Belgium's Le Soir asked readers to shun the Alpine nation.
But no matter: Zottel's handlers are bounding over the 29% they earned in October's vote. This cements the party's position as first political formation in the Swiss Confederation-a distinction they first earned in 2003. Since that time, the SVP's share of the Swiss National Council has grown to 62 seats of 200. The second-place Social Democrats, meanwhile, dropped nine, to settle for 43.
Until two decades ago, the SVP was a lightweight agrarian formation; but under the influence of billionaire industrialist and Swiss Justice Minister Christoph Blocher, the party has grown to embrace "Europhobia," a neo-liberal economic platform, and a certain idea of "Swissness." Critics are quick to compare Blocher to Austria's Jörg Haider, or to Frenchman Jean-Marie Le Pen. But party leaders dismiss talk of "Alpine fascism"; and the SVP website (in German and in French) pains to present a nationalism consistent with Heidi and Ricola commercial spots. Campaign literature describes a party beholden to Switzerland, and to no other. And the party's electoral platform invites judges to censure practices at odds with "Swiss values." These, they write, include genital excision, "crimes of honor," polygamy, and discrimination against women. The party also speaks to freedom of conscience and opinion, while rejecting, in the tradition of Swiss secularism, "political claims of religious inspiration and their symbols." This refers to minarets, specifically. The party kicked off a signature drive in May to force an obligatory referendum banning minarets, which Blocher's party considers both an accessory of worship and a "sign of domination." "Islam," they write, "makes no distinction between Church and State, such that minarets become the expression of influence not only religious, but political, in nature. This conception is incompatible with Western secular tradition." To bolster this argument, the party summons Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, as mayor of Istanbul, received a sentence of 10 months for bowdlerizing an Islamic poem. The mayor's version, read publicly, says: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers." The SVP also argue that "arguments that serve today to justify minaret construction will be used, in turn, to justify muezzins [those who call to prayer]." This has not, so far, been cause for alarm: Switzerland counts only two minarets today -- one in Zurich and one in Geneva -- and the call to prayer is allowed from neither. But the party's position, on principle, is clear: "It's high time to let the Swiss people decide on the question of minarets in their nation." And the wind, at present, blows in the party's favor: Earlier in the year, for example, Lausanne's Matin published results of a survey claiming 43% of Swiss support a ban. SVP parliamentarian Oskar Freysinger claims the party has nothing against Muslims or the faith. "But we don't want minarets," he continues,
"The minaret is a symbol of a political and aggressive Islam; it's a symbol of Islamic law. The minute you have minarets in Europe, it means Islam will have taken over."
Mr. Freysinger and his party may well be "paranoid," as critical journalists have claimed; but with the appeal of their message and the result of October's elections, they have succeeded in demanding the famously neutral Swiss to decide between (1) Western multiculturalism, which views the minaret as symbol of "respect, cohesion, and citizen solidarity"; or (2) the national tradition of direct democracy, in which the people's will (however paranoid) is binding.
Will minarets one day festoon the Alpine horizon? It's for the Swiss to decide if that's a good thing-or if, as Zottel claims, it's ba-a-a-a-ad.
R. John Matthies is assistant director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. He can be contacted at Matthies@MEForum.org