There was a time when a figure such as the free-thinking philosopher Voltaire, who was exiled from France for failing to adhere to the religious orthodoxy of his day, could be assured of sanctuary in Switzerland, with its religious tolerance. Not anymore. On Sunday, 57 percent of Swiss voters passed a referendum banning the construction of minarets - the tall spires that adorn Islamic mosques - in that former haven of religious freedom. It would be a mistake to conclude simply that Swiss bigots have rebranded their country as Europe’s leader in the expanding field of anti-Muslim discrimination. Xenophobia has a long and lamentable history in the Old World. And it is being revived, as anti-Islamic anxiety, in several countries that once were proud of their Enlightenment values.
Eventually, Switzerland’s prohibition against new minarets - there are but four standing today in the entire country - is sure to be overturned either by a Swiss court or by the European Court of Human Rights. The true antidote to intolerance must be sought, however, in politics and social life. Enlightened politicians have to defend the principle of pluralism. And citizens must learn to distinguish between their peaceable Muslim neighbors and terrorists in thrall to Al Qaeda. The minaret is no more a symbol of terrorism than a church steeple.