Is this racist?

Is this racist? Or sectarian? Or more simply – just bullying?

Or perhaps it’s somewhere on the spectrum between fair comment and edgy political satire?

That’s one side of a lantern at what some call the world’s biggest moving outdoor art display – the Basel Fasnacht. The other side – the more offensive side is further down.

I’ve shown you the grotesques, the musicians and the Waggis. But the lanterns deserve a note in their own right. So here they are.

They’re skillfully painted light boxes, pulled or carried through the streets of Basel accompanied by the bizarre bands. By day the images are clear, by night they’re lit up from within.

In keeping with the overall flavour of the festival, they tend to have a satirical mocking approach. The images skewer public figures, national or international or highlight current issues.

So the environment is a common theme. BP got a bashing this year for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – Oil Soup (above).

The bailout of the Greek economy, road deaths, deaths from smoking, Angela Merkel, local politicians all get a bashing. George W Bush used to feature, now it’s Obama and Gadaffi.


Religious tension played a part in the scheduling of the Basel Fasnacht.

Typically carnivals like this around the world are Mardi Gras – they happen on the fat Tuesday before Lent begins.

I’m told that when authority in Basel canton was taken over by Protestants, they shifted the date of the Fasnacht into Lent to spite the less numerous local Catholics.

Generations later the inside-Lent timing is the tradition here. (And speaking of tradition, the handsome chap on the right is saying he wants you for the Rhyschnoogg -the old guard.)

But what do you make of this lantern? It’s the other side of the lantern pictured at the top.

Muslims make up an estimated 4.3% of the population and yet they’re seen as a threat. (To stripping off at the pool in this case.)

Citizens recently voted to ban the building of minarets. The state is currently swamped with… four. That’s four minarets altogether. In the whole country. Clearly a major threat deserving of a national referendum.

Basel stadt (city) was one of the few cantons that had a majority to vote against the minaret ban. Which fits with the tolerant approach of many of the people I’ve encountered in the city. So far, so good.

Which made it all the more disturbing to see this anti-Muslim imagery in Basel of all places.

The rhyme in Swiss-German reads:

Muesch jetz mit burkha und burkini schön verpaggt ins wasser yyni wenn scho manne, nundefaane no miesse jetz eunuche aane

That translates roughly as:

Now you have to wear burkha and “burkini” to go to the swimming pool. If you’re a man,  holymoly, only eunuchs allowed…

Yeah right. Because those 4.3% of Muslims are taking over! Soon we’ll all be forced into burkhas! Our culture is under threat! Panic!

This 2007 racist poster from the conservative Swiss People’s Party didn’t appear to undermine their rise in popularity. They tend to point to foreigners as the root of all problems.

It’s like the graffiti and quiet comments I encountered in Poland when I worked there after the Berlin Wall came down. Except they didn’t blame Muslims. It was the Jews who were supposedly behind everything and running the country – despite the fact that 90% of the Jewish population had been wiped out by the Nazis. And a good few of those who survived were then bumped off by the Poles after the Germans left. Where were all these Jews supposedly taking over everything 45 years later?

Then again, according to the graffiti, the famously Catholic Solidarity leader and later president Lech Walesa, was also really a Jew. Ai – some people…

But hang on. Is it not allowed, not politically correct to criticise or ridicule religious groups any more? Sure it is. Go for it. As one of the tolerant open-minded Basler people I know reminds me, it’s good to be sceptical towards religious fundamentalism and fundamentalists.

But I’m uncomfortable with poking fun at local Muslim women, be-burka’d or not, and implying they pose a threat. Seems like dangerous fun to me. The bullying kind.

C’mon Fasnacht lantern makers… It’s time to stop tilting at straw men (and women) and minorities. Pick on someone your own size – like… like…. like Simon Cowell. There you go. That’s you sorted for Fasnacht 2012.



Filed under art, life, politics

11 responses to “Is this racist?

  1. Very thought provoking post. Having something to fear has been the way monarchs and dictators stay in power. He becomes the protector despite possible vile acts and the people focus on resisting the common enemy. Fear mongers have become prominent in today’s society. I have little regard for the European colonial powers. They subjugated half the world and ruled those people as third class people and now they refuse to understand that culture exchanges itself. It is a two way street for the subjects and ruling group. On the other hand, Islamic people in the west have the same right to demonstrate their feelings in return. Someday we will identify ourselves as people of the planet earth. What will the extreme nationalist do then?

  2. And then you have to ask the question, is it racist – or at least culturally insensitive – to make accusations of racism or other intolerance against cultures other than your own? Swiss Islamophobia, Muslim misogyny, Ugandan homophobia, Pope-bashing in Lewes… the paradox of liberalism is that sometimes we feel the urge to impose that liberalism in an illiberal manner.

    • blackwatertown

      Well there’s opining and imposing. I’m happy to opine. The imposing is more difficult. So is the persuading, but I’ve been known to try.
      As for the cultural relativism question – I’m on the side of moral absolutes. My own naturally. Some more deluded souls (i.e. they disagree with me) don’t know where to draw the line.
      So female circumcision, locking up the swings on Sundays and deriding things with the phrase “that’s a bit gay.” They’re all out, out, out – as Margaret Thatcher used to say.
      But liking Margaret Thatcher, smoking in your own car and accordion bands. Each to their own.

  3. (Not that I’m saying you’re wrong to diss the horrible burka placards – they’re rank on aesthetic grounds if no other. Just that it’s all a bit of a paradox.)

  4. I wonder if these extremists truly believe what they are touting, or just trying to outdo the competition.

  5. There’s always some group at the centre of this kind of xenophobia, just happens to be the turn of Islamics. Hey, we’ve watched the Pope be accused of being a Nazi sympathiser, nobody got their knickers in a huge twist about that. Fair game I say and the Swiss and Austrians have never been known for their racial tolerance. Looks to me like it’s one of those ‘events’ where they can get away with it.

  6. Racial Tolerance at its Best….NOT! Let’s just say that this festival is racist and sectarian dressed up in outrageous political lanterns to make people think. Their political expression seems one sided and narrow, but they can’t seem to help themselves. Yikes!

  7. I live in a largely Muslim community, many of the women don’t wear burkahs, but of course there are a few that do, whether it be their choice or that of their husbands I don’t know. I do know that I am uncomfortable not being able to see a face or expression and I feel exposed myself then. BUT I would never poke fun at another woman’s choice and bullying is just wrong. This post is thought provoking and I like your colourful photos, they do enhance your fine work here!

  8. Barbara Rodgers

    As my father used to say when frustrated by the lack of progress in the area of mutual tolerance and humans finding ways to coexist, “It was ever thus…” Only the names of the groups of players seem to change.

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