Islam and Islamophobia, and how democracies have responded

Direct Democracy

Since 9/11, popular votes have increasingly been aimed against Islam, replacing the anti-Semitic and anti-communist slogans of the time before the terrorist attacks. Healthy democracies, however, have not been shaken by this.This content was published on September 11, 2021 – Bruno KaufmannJonas GlatthardEster UnterfingerOther languages: 6

The poster features three men in headgear, armed to the teeth with machine guns and explosive belts. This image (see above) is currently going viral in Switzerland via social media networks. It illustrates a petition campaign “against uncontrolled mass immigration from Afghanistan” and calls on Swiss parliamentarians to “ban Muslims from immigrating for two years”.

Twenty years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, anti-Muslim campaigns are garnering much support in established democracies like Switzerland. “They serve the fears of many people, just as anti-Semitic and anti-communist slogans used to do,” says political scientist Farid Hafez who lectures on racism and religion at Salzburg University in Austria.

“Vienna must not become Istanbul”

Austria is no stranger to inflammatory speeches. Hafez remembers the 1895 slogan “Vienna must not become Jerusalem”. During the post-war era, this slogan changed to “Vienna must not become Moscow” or “Vienna must not become Chicago” depending on the political mood in the country. “Since 9/11, the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria, the FPÖ, has used the slogan ‘Vienna must not become Istanbul’”, says Hafez.

 In 1933, the National Front promised to “cleanse” Switzerland of Jews and Communists. In 2009, the minaret initiative (right) promised to prevent Switzerland from being influenced by Islam.

Powerful pictures of bloody upheavals or peaceful demonstrations have contributed to the political discourse changing. “Democratic opinion-forming processes are like gauges that indicate what society is concerned about,” says political scientist Theo Schiller, who researches the history of democracy. “It is healthy to have political dialogue in a democracy as it takes all concerns into consideration.”

Schiller, who is based in the German town Marburg, says the role of the bourgeois right-wing politician and head of the Bavarian Christian Socialist Union party, Franz Josef Strauss, was a good example. His rise in the 1960s was mainly driven by anti-communism and reached its zenith shortly after the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) launched an attack on the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. The assaults on West German politicians by the far-left terror organisation Red Army Faction (RAF) also played in his favour.

After several election defeats, Strauss toned down his polarising speeches and increasingly sought dialogue with the heads of state of East Germany and the Soviet Union. The right-wing party “Alternative for Germany” is experiencing something similar during the ongoing campaign for the German federal elections later this month. “Islamophobic speeches have recently lost their appeal,” Schiller observes.

Religious minorities as targets for initiatives

Direct democratic rights in Switzerland give smaller political entities the opportunity to influence opinions by launching initiatives and referenda. “We have a long tradition of anti-initiatives,” says Marc Bühlmann who runs the Swissvotes database at the University of Bern. The database contains information on all 650 popular votes that have been launched in Switzerland since 1893. “The first popular vote ever submitted was directed against slaughtering animals according to Jewish rites,” Bühlmann explains. In the 20th century, numerous anti-communist bills were voted on. “Since the turn of the millennium, initiatives critical of Islam have caused international stir,” he continues.

The opposition to communism which was widespread in the West during the Cold War can still be felt throughout Switzerland. Communist regimes are still portrayed as the enemy and are used as an excuse to justify spending large amounts of money on armament. During the Cold War, the federal government purchased the Mirage fighter jet which, according to the then head of the air force, could have carried “an atomic bomb to Moscow”.


A global stress test for freedom of expressionOne of democracy’s fundamental pillars is under attack and under scrutiny across the world.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Islam became the enemy. “The problem is that we often don’t differentiate between violent radical Islam and Islamic faith,” Hafez observes.External Content Content

For this reason, Hafez thinks, popular votes such as the 2009 initiative against the construction of minarets and the 2021 initiative to ban face coverings, which were both accepted, are problematic. Marc Bühlmann of the University of Bern is convinced, however, that such motions contribute to a better dialogue between various interest groups.

The American publicist Yascha Mounk is not hugely worried about clear political statements and initiatives against Communism and Islam, he is much more concerned about powerful and influential supporters of ideologies that glorify violence. “A strong democracy needs strong democratic institutions,” Mounk tells SWI “This includes freedom of expression and the strict rejection of anti-democratic movements which we have recently seen in the United States.” Mounk, who lectures politics at Harvard University and has written several books on democracy, believes that the recipe for success is “democracy”.

The power of the pictures from the world of democracy

Menschen auf der Mauer
 Thierlein/Ullstein Bild

1989: Fall of the Berlin wall, Germany

When the Berlin wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union imploded, the US political scientist Francis Fukuyama said we had reached the end of history. However, the former East-West conflict was soon replaced by a new battle which focused on the Muslim world. The consequences: new wars, but also movements of hope and democratic debates.

 Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos

1991: Second Gulf War, Kuwait/Iraq

US soldiers encircle a destroyed Iraqi tank. The Americans start a new West-East conflict in the Persian Gulf.

Gefallene Statue
 Leo Erken/laif

1991: Collapse of the Soviet Union

Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” never materialised and remains a snapshot of history.    

9/11 flüchtende Menschen
 Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

2001: 9/11

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, President George W Bush declares the “War on Terror”.

Soldaten in Baghdad
 Keystone / Laurent Rebours

2003: Third Gulf War, Iraq

Together with NATO allies such as Great Britain and Denmark, the US attempts to implement ‘Western’ values in the Middle East.

 Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi

2009: Minaret ban, Switzerland

The Swiss respond to the 9/11 terrorist attacks by voting in favour of a ban on the constructions of minarets.

Mann wird auf Schultern getragen während Protest
 Keystone / Muhammed Muheisen

2011: Arab Spring

This started in Tunisia and spread to numerous Arab states. During the Arab spring, millions of young people showed their resistance to authoritarian rulers.

Frau mit Burka auf der Piazza Grande
 Ti-press / Pablo Gianinazzi

2013: Burka ban, Ticino/Switzerland

The Swiss display more Islamophobia. Canton Ticino introduces a burka ban after the residents accepted it in a popular vote.

Passant mit Regenschirm vor Gedenkmal
 Keystone / Ian Langsdon

2015: Bataclan theatre massacre, Paris/France

128 people died in terror attacks by the jihadist organisation Islamic State.

Plakat verhüllte Frau mit bösem Blick
 Reuters / Arnd Wiegmann

2021: Burka ban, Switzerland

Twenty years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the majority of the Swiss vote in favour of a nationwide burka ban.

Taliban in den Strassen Kabuls
 Keystone / Stringer

2021: The fall of Kabul, Afghanistan

Taliban forces taking control of Afghanistan’s capital marks the end of US attempts to bring peace to the country by military means.


Join the discussionInternational GenevaDORIAN BURKHALTERWhich aspects of your life have changed after 9/11?What was the biggest impact of 9/11 on the world, and on your life – online, or offline?1019

Articles in this story



1 reply

Leave a Reply