Nov 12 2009

From a disenfranchised, bystanding expat

by at 8:53 pm

Since my last blogging, a good family friend, may her memory be for a blessing, passed away from cancer to our great devastation; my state of NJ went red despite my overseas absentee ballot effort; I heard the near-future strategy of the International Criminal Court presented in person by Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor; we went on a long weekend to Bath, England to meet up with my parents on their way to Mauritius; Seth wrote and finished a major grant application and got a paper accepted to a journal…too much has happened, and much has been too heartbreaking.  So I’m not going to talk about any of those things, but I am going talk about something else.  Minarets.

In Switzerland, there are way fewer billboards than in the US.  More selective advertising means that one notices the ads more.  They are rarely for companies (and if they are for companies, it is usually one of the two duopolists, Migros or Coop, or for butter or cheese), and more typically for events (like concerts or festivals), as public service announcements, or for political causes. There are frequently popular referenda here, and thus there are often ads to accompany them.  Ads here are a weird affair in themselves.  They tend to be:

  • filled with beautiful, white people
  • have good graphic design
  • occasionally filled with some kind of minority in an incredibly offensive sort of way
  • often about very Swiss topics like keeping the train as clean as you would keep your bedroom
  • relatively low on the sexual content

Seth and I are often upset about them.  Last year, there was an ad for butter which showed the “natural” image of someone who ate butter (beautiful, white) and the “unnatural” image of someone who ate butter substitutes (transvestite).  The butter campaign has switched to photoshopping alpine villages to make them look like they are growing out of butter, mountains included (looks like mountain mold).  Now, a poster-hanging company is advertising itself with an offensively, stereotypically, fez-wearing Turk named Ali Kebap.  Do they think these are gaining them customers, and, um, are they?

Then, of course, there are the political ads, which generally have images that have little to do with the actual issue at hand.  But currently, there are signs up about the issue of allowing minarets to be constructed.  There will be a federal referendum on Nov 29 as to whether more than the 4-already constructed minarets in Switzerland will be allowed.  I haven’t seen any signs in favor of this cause; the best I’ve noticed has been “yes, right of worship, no, minarets.”  I’ve also just seen “no to minarets!”  Both of these ads feature very sharp and scary looking caricatured and multiplying minarets with a hijab-wearing woman cowering ominously in the corner. I can’t even imagine how Muslims walking by those signs must feel.  What a welcoming place this country is.  People here can be pretty darn xenophobic—it goes beyond those ads.  I’ve had some uncomfortable conversations.

In our town of Renens, which is very immigrant heavy with a large proportion of Muslims, there are graffiti taggers who specialize in tagging ads, often with what I consider rather astute political commentary—mustaches on white, beautiful women, blackened teeth on Ali Kebap, a well-placed snide word, etc.  In the case of the “yes, right of worship, no minarets,” which is posted prominently in the train station, they cleverly crossed out the “no” and replaced it with “yes.”  Also, in the far-left party newsletter spam we received in the mail (our town is not only immigrant heavy, but into communism), there was some relief to be had from the cover-page article denouncing xenophobia and proclaiming that banning minarets will alienate immigrants.  They compare this intolerant referendum to the old ban on bell towers for Catholic churches in the Canton of Vaud.  Why is this only appearing in far-left propaganda?

[Update on 18 November: I have since noticed more mainstream sources denouncing racism.  It took awhile, but it arrived.  Renens’ official newsletter featured a cover story on the issue, encouraging its citizens to vote no to the ban on minarets and republishing a beautiful ad to religious equality produced by the Societe pour les Minorities en Suisse, which is running an active campaign against the initiative.  In French, it says “Le ciel suisse est suffisamment vaste pour abriter toutes les croyances,” which I would translate to “The Swiss sky is sufficiently vast to shelter all beliefs.”  I wonder what synagogue’s roof is featured in that ad; it looks suspiciously like the Neue Synagogue in Berlin, which is most definitely not in Switzerland.  In addition, several of my friends from IHEID and choir have joined a facebook group of over 4,000 members which parodies the malicious poster and encourages its members to vote no to the initiative as well.  This is all encouraging, and I am happy that serious organizing against the initiative is happening before the vote, before it is too late.]

What is interesting, and frustrating for me, is that all I can do here is look at the ads and then go to Democrats Abroad events here or send an overseas ballot home to vote on something currently very dissociated from me.  It is strange, because I continue to follow American news sources very closely, and Swiss news sources less, but it is in Switzerland where I now live. What has become really noticeable to me, living abroad and studying international relations, is that people often see foreign countries only in terms of their foreign policies.  Transnational efforts on social issues occur, but not all too often, especially not in a grass-roots kind of way.  Friends here simply cannot comprehend why Obama might be mired in women’s right to choose, gay marriage, health reform, recession, and climate change debates and how political compromises on these issues at home might inlfuence him when it comes to, say, Afghanistan and Iraq.   Friends back in the US campaigning for gay marriage never seem to have asked themselves what the status of gay rights is abroad and how they got where they are and whether gay rights are a politically charged issue or not. Personally, I still can’t figure out where the gender queer people are in my Swiss life (I’ve only met two gay couples since I arrived, and they’re 3/4 American) yet I know that the laws are more favorable to LGBTQ people here than in the US.

I feel overwhelmed by the acceptability of discrimination all around me, coming over the New York Times, via billboards in Switzerland, and every day in class.  How is it still possible that such blatant prejudice and intolerance is still within the political mainstream?  Should I tolerate such intolerance?  It’s upsetting, and paralyzing, because it is so close, and yet so far.  People I know, in both countries, are affected directly by all of these debates.  Yet, all I can do is be a bystander.  So I’m standing by, but not uncritically.  What are you doing?

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5 responses so far

5 Responses to “From a disenfranchised, bystanding expat”

  1. HSFon 13 Nov 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Jackie – I’ve been complaining of the same thing! The anti-minaret posters make me feel incredibly unwelcome – as a religious minority, a foreigner and a human being. The comparison to church bells occurred to me this morning, while I was reading this:

    Welcome back! I’m sorry such a sad state of local affairs is your greeting…

    the Captcha I have to type now is “20 boobs”. Boobs!

  2. Jackieon 13 Nov 2009 at 5:10 pm

    That is a good way of putting it. Yes, it makes me feel unwelcome, too. And, yeah, you’re right, the call to prayer is no more disruptive to the silence of Switzerland than churchbells, which seem always to be ringing in my ear, particularly on Sundays, when I’d prefer sleeping.

    Also, good to know you’re helping the digitalizing libraries of the world figure out how to recognize “boobs.”

  3. Elisaon 13 Nov 2009 at 5:33 pm

    Oh, don’t get me started. My blood boils every time I see one of those posters!! I even got a flier version in the mail, I guess to “inform us” before we voted on the minaret issue, and I got so mad I ripped it and threw it in the garbage right there. Let my Swiss neighbors see what I think of this xenophobic garbage.

    This is where the right to free speech gets perverted into racism and xenophobia. It’s despicable.

  4. Jackieon 13 Nov 2009 at 7:08 pm

    Yes, well, free speech gets us to the same place in the US on a frequent enough basis too. I guess it is the price we pay to have the right of free speech. We just have to work when we can to make sure people don’t choose the racist/xenophobic route.

    By the way, Elisa, I am pretty happy to discover your blog and find out you happened upon ours!

  5. […] complained about ads in Switzerland before and posted a clip of Jon Stewart mocking them, so we were pleasantly […]

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