Switzerland has four mosques with minarets and a population of 350,000 nominal Muslims, mostly Europeans from Bosnia and Kosovo, of which 13 per cent regularly go to prayer. Not a huge problem, one might have thought. Yet, 57.5 per cent of Swiss voters opted in a referendum for a constitutional ban on minarets, allegedly because of worries about "fundamentalism" and the "creeping Islamization" of Switzerland.
Are the Swiss more bigoted than other Europeans? Probably not. Referendums are a measure of popular gut feelings, rather than considered opinion, and popular gut feelings are rarely liberal. Referendums on this issue in other European countries might well produce startlingly similar results.
To attribute the Swiss vote to ban minarets - an idea promoted by the right-wing Swiss People's Party - to "Islamophobia" is perhaps to miss the point. To be sure, a long history of mutual Christian-Muslim hostility, and recent cases of radical Islamist violence, have made many people fearful of Islam in a way that they are not of Hinduism, say, or Buddhism. And the minaret, piercing the sky like a missile, is easily caricatured as a fearsome image.
But if the Swiss and other Europeans were self-assured about their own identities, their Muslim fellow citizens probably would not strike such fear in their hearts. And that might be the problem.
It was not so long ago that the majority of citizens in the Western world had their own unquestioned symbols of collective faith and identity. The church spires that grace many European cities still meant something to most people. Few people married outside their own faith.
Until recently, too, many Europeans believed in their kings and queens, flew their national flags, sang their national anthems, were taught heroic versions of their national histories. Home was home. Foreign travel was for soldiers, diplomats and rich people. "Identity" was not yet seen as a problem.
Much has changed, thanks to global capitalism, European integration, the stigmatization of national feeling by two catastrophic world wars, and, perhaps most important, the widespread loss of religious faith. Most of us live in a secular, liberal, disenchanted world. The lives of most Europeans are freer now than ever before. We are no longer told what to do or think by priests or our social superiors. When they try, we tend not to take any notice.
But there has been a price to pay for our newly liberated world. Freedom from faith and tradition has not always led to greater contentment but, on the contrary, to widespread bewilderment, fear and resentment. While demonstrations of collective identity have not entirely disappeared, they are largely confined to football stadiums, where celebration (and disappointment) can quickly boil over into violence and resentment.
Populist demagogues blame political, cultural and commercial elites for the anxieties of the modern world. They are accused, not entirely without reason, of imposing mass immigration, economic crisis and loss of national identity on ordinary citizens. But if the elites are hated for causing our modern malaise, the Muslims are envied for still having faith, for knowing who they are, for having something that is worth dying for.
It is unimportant that many European Muslims are just as disenchanted and secular as their non-Muslim fellow citizens. It is the perception that counts. Those soaring minarets, those black head scarves, are threatening because they rub salt in the wounds of those who feel the loss of their own faith.
It is not surprising that anti-Muslim populism has found some of its most ferocious supporters among former leftists, for they, too, have lost their faith - in world revolution, or whatnot. Many of these leftists, before their turn to revolution, came from religious backgrounds. So they suffered a double loss. In their hostility to Islam, they like to talk about defending "Enlightenment values," whereas, in fact, they lament the collapse of faith, whether religious or secular.
There is, alas, no immediate cure for the kind of social ills exposed by the Swiss referendum. The Pope has an answer, of course. He would like people to return to the bosom of Rome. Evangelical preachers, too, have a recipe for salvation. Neo-conservatives, for their part, see the European malaise as a form of typical Old World decadence, a collective state of nihilism bred by welfare states and soft dependence on hard American power. Their answer is a revived Western world, led by the United States, engaged in an armed crusade for democracy.
But, unless one is a Catholic, a born-again Christian or a neo-con, none of these visions is promising. The best we can hope for is that liberal democracies will muddle through this period of unease - that demagogic temptations will be resisted, and violent impulses contained. After all, democracies have weathered worse crises in the past.
That said, it would surely help if we had fewer referendums. Contrary to what some believe, they do not strengthen democracy. They weaken it by undermining our elected representatives, whose job is to exercise their good judgment rather than voice the gut feelings of an anxious, angry people.
Ian Buruma is professor of human rights at Bard College in Annadale-on-Hudson, N.Y. He is the author of Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.