THE SWISS ALPS, SWITZERLAND -- "Explain the minaret ban," I asked.
I was sitting in the side room of a house, overlooking a flat plot somewhat larger than the trampoline outside. Beyond that trampoline, still visible in the evening light, rose the Swiss Alps. Across the table, Oskar Freysinger sat poised to address my query over some cups of espresso, speaking as a local leader of the Swiss People's Party.
Or perhaps I should say -- a local leader of the "extremist," "bigoted" and "xenophobic" Swiss People's Party. That's how this largest political party in tiny Switzerland is routinely discussed, or, rather, dismissed by elites, glitterati and other social deadweights.
Why? Because the Swiss People's Party is, with noticeable success, fighting to bring massive immigration, including Islamic immigration, under control in Switzerland before this rigidly neutral, quite independent, non-European Union country loses its uniquely Swiss character. (Hardly unimaginable given that 21.1 percent of Swiss residents are foreign.) This makes men like Freysinger a dire threat to the multicultural world order. Hence the very nasty, but meaningless names.
Now engaged in probably its greatest battle yet, the Swiss People's Party has just amassed more than the requisite 100,000 signatures on a petition to trigger a national referendum, in this controversial case, on whether Switzerland should ban minarets, the towers that often soar high enough over mosques to transform the skyline of any cathedral town in Europe. Out of 90 mosques in Switzerland, only two have minarets. Three more are now in political limbo.
"We have long reflected on this," said Freysinger, 48, a strongly built man whose intelligent face, long, dark pony tail and summer sandals confound the Tyrolean-capped, alpine stereotype. A high school teacher of German literature, he is bilingual in German and French, and plenty serviceable in both Italian and English, the latter being our interview lingo.
Discussing the "long progression" of Islam -- now 4.3 percent of Switzerland's mainly Christian population of 7.5 million -- into Swiss life, he explains that what concerns him is "not the (Islamic) religion, but the law," meaning Islamic law, or Sharia. And while there is religious freedom in Switzerland for new mosques, this same freedom does not extend to minarets, which he sees as political more than religious symbols. "Minarets are not necessary for the practice" of Islam, he explains.
Indeed, historically, the minaret has often served as a sign of Islamic political power. In our own era, it may be seen to symbolize the introduction of Islamic law into formerly non-Islamic societies.