Is the Minaret Ban ‘democratic’?

Most readers will probably have by now that Switzerland has passed a referendum to ban the building of minarets anywhere in the country. This has prompted many musings, in particular on the relationship between democracy and liberty.

This looks, after all, like an example of an illiberal but democratic measure. This prompts Chris to say

“We have, therefore, a simple conflict of fundamental values, a vindication of Isaiah Berlin: …Some among the great goods cannot live together. That is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.”

By contrast, Left Outside tries to harmonise the two (and hence judge this decision undemocratic) by saying

“I don’t think it must be inherently democratic simply because it was a decision returned by a referendum. There are some things in a democracy more fundamental than simply voting for representatives or in referenda…equality before the law is essential, as is…freedom of conscience”

Dave argues for a similar sort of conclusion along different lines:

“If democracy is merely about the relationship of individuals to authority then [this ban is democratic], 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…

[D]emocracy is weakened, because democracy can only really proceed from a correct understanding of, for want of a better phrase, how things work.”

All of these are valid points, but I’m not sure they would convince Chrisiah Berlin (a composite personality insisting that ‘some among the great goods cannot live together’). Isn’t this just a redefining of the word ‘democracy’ to include various more substantive notions of freedom?

If we define ‘schmemocracy’ as ‘the will of the majority being effected’, regardless of whether that will is well-informed, or cohesive, or correct, then have we just replaced an apparent conflict between liberty and democracy with one between ‘democracy’ and ‘schmemocracy’?

To my mind, though, there’s a more basic argument for thinking that this event doesn’t show us a conflict between liberty and democracy/schmemocracy. Namely, that even if we define ‘democracy’ as ‘the will of the majority being effected’, this definition is still technically ill-formed.

Because what is meant by ‘the majority’? After all, the number of people who voted ‘yes’ in this referendum is a few million, which is less than 0.1% of human beings. That’s not a majority.

So there must be some criterion of what counts as the relevant population, the ‘demos’ of whom a majority is needed. One way to define that is to assume that the relevant population is always that of the sovereign nation-state. That is what, it appears, the great majority of people nowadays do, but it looks distinctly arbitrary to me. National boundaries are largely about how successful one groups of armed men have been relative to other groups of armed men. Nationalism then is rather like deciding political issue by a boxing match between leading politicians.

To my mind, the only reasonable way to define the relevant population is by a measure something like ‘those who are affected’. Now, those who sincerely and passionately want to build minarets are substantially affected by this ban; those who just don’t like seeing them, or knowing they’re there, are affected in a much more superficial way. One is being prevented from doing something by the state, while the other retains complete freedom either way, and merely has to tolerate seeing some disliked structures as they walk past.

So in this sense, the people who might or might not build minarets are the primary ‘demos’ (in that freedom of religion is primary over the sort of diffuse right to a ‘nice-looking’ neighbourhood) and I imagine a majority of them voted ‘no’.

Indeed we could go further. If three people want to build a minaret, and aren’t hurting anyone else by doing so, they form the primary ‘people affected’ and so the ‘democratic’ thing is for them to choose whether they can build a minaret or not.

And a big part of anarchist models of society (and, I presume but don’t know for sure, of Marxist non-models after the ‘withering away’ of the state) is the idea of voluntary federation: that individuals and groups of any size should have the constant right to withdraw from larger social organisations if they feel heavily persecuted. This is not a magic bullet, but it is, I think, the most basic way to organically embody this idea of individual and minority freedom within the structure of democracy.

This isn’t always as simple as I may have made it sound, of course. Things affect lots of people to different degrees – such as by consuming resources that others could have used. But we’ve always known that – we’ve always known, in particular, that Mill’s famous ‘harm principle’ is only a rule of thumb against the complexities of the real world. But it’s still a good rule of thumb, and what’s interesting is that by paying attention to who counts as the relevant ‘majority’, we can make the harm principle (that paradigmatic claim of personal liberty) coincide and connect neatly with valuing democracy.

Also, of course, there can still be tragic conflicts – between one person’s liberty and another’s, between one groups’ democracy and another’s. But that’s not the same as a conflict between liberty and democracy in the abstract.

Which makes a certain sense: both are principles of self-rule, one individual and one collective.

7 Responses to “Is the Minaret Ban ‘democratic’?”

  1. Chema Says:

    There are at least* 7.7 million people in Switzerland. Of these, 1.7 million people are considered to be “foreigners”, even though nearly two-thirds were born in Switzerland or have lived there at least 10 years. In either case, they are members of whatever community they live in but are just denied political rights.

    Of the Swiss population that could vote, only 53.7% cast a vote yesterday in this “democratic” referendum. It was a simple majority, 57.5%, that voted to ban the construction of minarets.

    Do 1.9 million votes, out of a population of 7.7 million, now a democratic majority make?

    *These are estimates, using official statistics, which do not account for an unknown number of undocumented residents.

  2. Lindsay Says:

    This looks, after all, like an illiberal but democratic measure.

    That was definitely how it struck me.

    When I heard that this referendum passed, I reflected that, as Islamophobic as the USA is (and I’m sure we are just as Islamophobic as Switzerland, France, Germany and other European nations; just in a different way, and with different visions of The Muslim Menace), we could not pass such a measure. Even leaving aside the fact that we don’t have a direct democracy, and thus don’t usually have referenda at all, we also can’t pass any new laws that conflict with our Constitution. It seems to me that banning minarets would violate the “freedom of religion” clause of our First Amendment, and thus would be deemed unconstitutional and scrapped as soon as somebody challenged it in court.

    This strikes me as an example of constraints on the will of the people (sometimes) serving to protect the rights of a minority. I think you might also see this in Turkey, which has been kept secular by its ruling party for a long time, but which still has a sizable portion of its citizens who’d like the country to be governed by some version of Islamic law. While I’m sure the atheistic, non-Muslim and minority-sect Muslim Turks are glad they don’t have to deal with laws demanding they abide by the majority religion/sect’s customs, and while I suspect that a lot of Turkish women appreciate the level of public participation they enjoy in a secular nation, I also think the majority is somewhat oppressed by the government’s curbs on the degree to which they can practice their religion (e.g., no hijab-wearing by female state employees).

    I like your idea about who constitutes the “demos,” though. It’d be a bureaucratic nightmare to implement in an actual nation-state, but I do think restricting participation in referenda to just those people who will be directly affected by whatever the proposed law is would work really well at minimizing the tyranny of the majority.

  3. The Limits of Democracy « Left Outside Says:

    […] Directionless Bones Is the Minaret Ban ‘democratic’? […]

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    A good point as well.

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I actually think I would question a few of things you say about the US vs. Switzerland.

    “Even leaving aside the fact that we don’t have a direct democracy, and thus don’t usually have referenda at all”
    I know that a number of states have rules for the initiation of referenda, and the most famous recently-passed such referenda that I know of are actually very similar to this Swiss event, namely anti-gay-marriage proposals.

    “It seems to me that banning minarets would violate the “freedom of religion” clause of our First Amendment, and thus would be deemed unconstitutional and scrapped as soon as somebody challenged it in court.”
    As I understand it, the Swiss government is party to some European treaties and agreements that would imply similar things – so legal challenges are certainly not impossible.

    But conversely, it seems to me that the US supreme court doesn’t work quite the way you suggest. Take the first amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. IIRC there have been a number of sedition laws passed during US history at crisis points, making the expression of certain opinions illegal (I think communists got in a lot of trouble around the WWI period – there were also restrictions placed on the freedom to raise abolitionism in congress at times). The Supreme Court never struck them down – they were just repealed when the crisis passed. The Court only started really enforcing first amendment rights during the civil rights period. The point is, writing protections into a constitution doesn’t give them any effect – it just gives a certain power to a certain minority body, who then may or may not use that power, depending on its inclination and perception of public mood.

    “While I’m sure the atheistic, non-Muslim and minority-sect Muslim Turks are glad they don’t have to deal with laws demanding they abide by the majority religion/sect’s customs, and while I suspect that a lot of Turkish women appreciate the level of public participation they enjoy in a secular nation, I also think the majority is somewhat oppressed by the government’s curbs on the degree to which they can practice their religion (e.g., no hijab-wearing by female state employees).”

    I think some of this is true but I also think that the rival to Islamism here is not just ‘secularism’ but ‘nationalism’. It has tended to be exactly those people most committed to secularism who have also most viciously persecuted the Kurds, for instance.

    So as before, it’s not that there can never be an undemocratic power that protects certain minority freedoms – it’s that usually the available undemocratic powers are just as likely to be illiberal and unfriendly to minorities, so that any rights they protect are almost by accident.

    “It’d be a bureaucratic nightmare to implement in an actual nation-state, but I do think restricting participation in referenda to just those people who will be directly affected by whatever the proposed law is would work really well at minimizing the tyranny of the majority.”
    Oh yes, the putting into effect would be horribly complicated. But I’m not sure it would have to be bureaucratic – as I said, I think if you have a social order pervasively built from the bottom-up by free association, rather than imposed from the top, you can go a decent way towards sorting out this stuff just from people sorting their own selves out.

  6. Lindsay Says:

    That’s true — we can have referenda at the state level, depending on what each state’s rules are. And you’re also right about the sedition laws — they do crop up with some regularity throughout our history, and they do always violate First Amendment rights to free speech and free association.

    [I]t’s not that there can never be an undemocratic power that protects certain minority freedoms – it’s that usually the available undemocratic powers are just as likely to be illiberal and unfriendly to minorities, so that any rights they protect are almost by accident.

    Oh, I definitely agree with this. And also with what you say about the balance in Turkey (and, I think, probably also in those European countries where there’s a lot of anti-Muslim backlash) between Islamism, secularism and nationalism. I think in both of those places, secularism and nationalism are loosely allied against Islamism, but nationalism can just as often conflict with secularism (as in the frequent, and frequently successful, attempts in the USA to inject Christian religious trappings into public spaces).

  7. Emperor Penguin Says:

    So how should we decide who is allowed to decide? Should we take a vote on it perhaps? It seems far from clear to me that those banned from constructing minarets are affected so much more than those who would just have to live in their shadow.


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