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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 4    Issue 15   16-31 December 2009

Ban on Minarets in Switzerland

Professor A. R. Momin

On 29 November 2009, Swiss voters endorsed, rather unexpectedly, a ban on the construction of minarets atop mosques in the country. About 57.5 per cent of voters and 22 out of 26 cantons approved the proposal, mooted by the far-right Swiss People’s Party and the Federal Democratic Union, to ban minarets in a nation-wide referendum. The vote was the culmination of a protracted campaign against the construction of minarets spearheaded by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which describes minarets as symbolizing the “Islamization of Europe”. The Swiss People’s Party had submitted a petition to the government, signed by more than 115,000 Swiss voters, demanding a referendum on the issue.

Prior to the referendum, the Swiss People’s Party put up posters across the country, which showed the Swiss flag covered in minarets, which looked like missiles, and the portrait of a Muslim woman covered with a black veil. The posters were banned in some Swiss cities and permitted in others, including Zurich and Geneva. The cities of Basel, Lausanne and Fribourg banned the posters, saying they painted a “racist, disrespectful and dangerous image of Islam”. On 26 November the Geneva mosque was vandalized for the third time during the campaign. Earlier, a vehicle with a loudspeaker drove through the area, imitating the muezzin’s call to prayer. Cobblestones were thrown at the mosque. Two weeks before the vote, Muslims in many parts of Switzerland invited the local people into mosques in order to counter fear and prejudices.

The construction of mosques and Islamic centres in Switzerland has been surrounded by legal and political controversy over the past few years. In 2007 the Bern City Council rejected plans to build an Islamic cultural centre in the city. There are an estimated 130 to 160 mosques and prayer halls in Switzerland, but only four of them, those in Zurich, Geneva, Winterthur and Wangen bei Olten, have minarets. The call to prayer is banned in the country. The Muslim community in Wangen bei Olten, a town at the foot of the Jura Mountains with a population of 5,000, sought permission from the local council for constructing a mosque with a minaret. The local population and the Catholic churches objected to the construction of the mosque, collected signatures and staged public protests. The controversy sparked a national debate. The matter was taken to court, which approved the construction of the mosque. The construction of the mosque, with a six metre tall minaret, was completed in 2008. The mosque has often been targeted by racist-minded people. Wine has been thrown into the mosque and a pig’s head was thrown on the steps.

Widespread condemnations

The Swiss Commission Against Racism fiercely condemned the posters displayed by the Swiss People’s Party prior to the referendum, saying “It amounts to a defamation of the peaceful Swiss population and endangers public peace in Switzerland”. From the time the Swiss People’s Party launched the campaign for banning minarets in the country, Switzerland’s neutral government has opposed the move because it violated the Swiss constitution, freedom of religion and the country’s cherished tradition of tolerance. However, since the outcome of the referendum is binding on the government according to the Swiss constitution, the government said after the vote that it would respect the people’s decision and declared that the construction of new minarets would no longer be permitted. Swiss foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said she was shocked and deeply regretted the outcome of the referendum. She added that the ban posed a threat to Switzerland’s security. “Every attack on the coexistence of different cultures also endangers our security,” she said. Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, the Swiss justice minister, said the ban would come into force immediately, but noted the possibility that the Swiss court could strike down the vote. She said the ban contradicted the European Convention on Human Rights. The Swiss Green Party said it might lodge a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg.

Protests meetings and sit-ins were held in several cities. Opponents of the minaret ban lit candles in front of the Swiss parliament and hung up banners saying “This is not my Switzerland”.

Switzerland’s decision to ban the construction of minarets has drawn condemnation from governments, politicians and political parties across Europe. The French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said he was shocked by the decision which showed intolerance. Sweden, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, has said that the Swiss ban flouts freedom of expression, and called it an expression of prejudice. Sweden said the United Nations should reconsider its presence in Geneva, where it employs thousands of people and holds hundreds of conferences each year.

Navi Pillai, United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said: “The ban on building minarets is discriminatory, deeply divisive and a thoroughly unfortunate step for Switzerland to take, and risks putting the country on a collision course with its human rights obligations”. Asma Jahangir, the United Nations special investigator on religious freedom, said the ban marked “clear discrimination against Switzerland’s Muslim community. As stated by the United Nations Human Rights Committee a month ago, such a ban is contrary to Switzerland’s obligations under international human rights law”. The European Court of Human Rights said the vote on banning minarets might violate fundamental rights. The 47-member Council of Europe said that banning “new minarets in Switzerland raises concerns as to whether fundamental rights of individuals, protected by international treaties, should be subject to popular votes”. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations said that the proposed change in the Swiss constitution (banning minarets) breached guarantees on religious freedom in the European Human Rights Convention.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) warned the vote had the potential to “create tensions and generate a climate of intolerance against Muslims”. Thorbjorn Jogland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, suggested that a case may be made to seek a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights condemning Switzerland for violating freedom of expression, freedom of religion and prohibition of discrimination”.

The Vatican joined the expression of dismay saying the vote represented the suppression of religious freedom. The Conference of Swiss Bishops also criticized the vote, saying that it “heightens the problems of cohabitation between religions and cultures”. Freedom House, an American lobby group, called the Swiss vote a “dangerous backslide” for religious liberty in a country that prided itself on tolerance.

Swiss and international media also joined the widespread condemnation of the vote. Geneva’s paper Le Temps wrote: “The vote was inspired by fear, fantasies and ignorance. Damage to the country’s international standing would be spectacular”. In an editorial, the New York Times described the decision to ban minarets as a disgraceful vote for intolerance and said that banning minarets does not address any of the problems with Muslim immigrants, but it is certain to alienate and anger them. The centre-left German newspaper Suddeutsche Zaitung wrote: “The referendum is a disaster for Switzerland. There is no such ban on the construction of minarets anywhere in Europe. When those six words “the construction of minarets is prohibited” are written into the Swiss constitution, they will breach that constitution in several ways, as they violate the guarantee of freedom of religion and the prohibition of discrimination. The ban also constitutes a flagrant breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. It won’t take long someone affected by the ban takes the case to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, which will result in an embarrassing condemnation and possibly Switzerland’s expulsion from the Council of Europe”. The conservative German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote: “Fundamentally democratic, cosmopolitan, tolerant—that’s how the Swiss always like to see themselves. But with the vote to ban further minarets, the country has also shown other traits that smack of narrow-mindedness, fear and the desire to wall itself in”.

Far-right parties hail the vote

The Swiss vote was welcomed and applauded by the far-right political parties across large parts of Europe. The right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who is well-known for his anti-Islam outbursts, called the vote “great” and said he would push for a similar referendum in the Netherlands. “What can be done in Switzerland can be done here,” he said. Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League and France’s National Front welcomed the vote. The Northern League said, “Switzerland is sending us a clear signal: yes to bell towers, no to minarets”. The Danish People’s Party called for a referendum on the issue in Denmark. Austria’s far-right FPO and BZO reiterated their old demand to ban minarets in the country. A factual ban is already in place in the provinces of Karnten and Voralberg. The German newspaper Bild, which is known for its far-right leanings, said Germans would probably vote the same way if they were allowed a referendum on the issue. The paper wrote: “The minaret isn’t just the symbol of a religion but of a totally different culture. Large parts of the Islamic world don’t share our basic European values: the legacy of the Enlightenment, the equality of man and woman, the separation of church and state, a justice system independent of the Bible or the Koran, and the refusal to impose one’s own beliefs on others with ‘fire and sword’. Those who are intolerant themselves cannot expect unlimited tolerance from others”.

Polls in France show that almost half of the respondents would support a ban on minarets in the country. Christian Estrosi, a minister and the mayor of Nice, has declared minarets would never appear on his town’s skyline.

Muslims and Islamophobia in Switzerland

Around 22 per cent of Switzerland’s population is of foreign origin. An estimated 400,000 Muslims are living in the country, making up about 5 per cent of Switzerland’s population of 7.5 million. More than 80 per cent of Muslims have no Swiss nationality. Switzerland has some of the toughest naturalisation laws and procedures in the world. Being born in the country does not automatically confer citizenship on a person. People wanting to be Swiss citizens are required to apply through the local community. In many cases the local residents in a town hall meeting reject the application on flimsy grounds. Candidates from Turkey, the former Yugoslavia and Africa are regularly rejected, despite having met all the requirements of naturalisation.

The far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) emerged as the largest group in the Swiss parliament in the October 2007 elections, scooping nearly 29% of the vote. The party’s campaign had focused almost entirely on the issue of immigration. It had displayed a controversial poster during the campaign, which showed three white sheep kicking a black sheep out of Switzerland, which drew sharp criticism from the United National special rapporteur on racism, Doudou Diene. A video, prepared by the SVP, showed, on the one side, Swiss families enjoying a holiday in the Alps—which was portrayed as “heaven”—and, on the other side, veiled Muslim women, immigrant teenagers attacking Swiss girls and black men standing idly in the street—which was depicted as “hell”.

The majority of Muslims in Switzerland are from Bosnia, Kosovo and Turkey. The country has had no problem with the Muslim community. There is no evidence of any kind of extremism among Swiss Muslims nor have they ever been implicated in any terrorist activities. The decision to ban minarets in Switzerland is manifestly discriminatory. Serbian Orthodox churches and Sikh temples are permitted to have their distinctive spires and domes without let or hindrance. In 2006, a Sikh temple, complete with a gleaming white crown, was inaugurated in Langenthal Karaademi.

Current trends across large parts of Europe suggest that, by and large, Muslims living in European countries are on sufferance, that their growing visibility, especially that of Islamic symbols such as the veil and the minaret, is resented by the majority population, that Muslims are under increasing pressure to assimilate into mainstream societies. A couple of years ago, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel had said that Germany had no problem with mosques, but their minarets should not overshadow the spires of cathedrals and churches. Reacting to the Swiss ban on minarets, French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned French Muslims in particular and other faith communities in general to refrain from “religious ostentation and provocation” and urged them to practice their religion “in humble discretion”. Writing in an opinion piece in the Le Monde newspaper on 8 December 2009, Sarkozy said, “Any thing that could appear as a challenge to France’s Christian roots and republican values would lead to failure in efforts to promote a form of moderate Islam. Instead of condemning the Swiss people, let’s try to understand what they are trying to express and what so many nations in Europe, including France, are feeling”. One can scarcely fail to notice an implicit endorsement of the Swiss vote in Sarkozy’s statement.

A few months ago Sarkozy had stirred up a hornet’s nest by declaring that the Islamic veil was unwelcome in France and hinted at the possibility of banning it in the country. He has set up a parliamentary panel to consider possible legislation to ban the wearing of the full veil or burqa in the country. On December 11, 2009, France’s Justice Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie hinted at the possibility of introducing legislation aimed at rejecting the application for citizenship from women wearing the burqa.

There is a widespread feeling among Muslims in France that citizenship does not guarantee acceptance by mainstream society, that in order to be accepted they are expected to give up their traditions and identities and assimilate into French society. In 2005 a Moroccan woman’s application for French citizenship was turned down on grounds of “insufficient assimilation”; it was argued that her “radical” practice of Islam was incompatible with basic French values such as equality of the sexes. The said woman’s only fault was that she wore the Islamic veil, although she was married to a French national, had been living in Paris where her two children were born, and spoke good French. She appealed against the ruling, invoking the French constitutional right to religious freedom and saying that she had never sought to challenge the fundamental values of French society. But in July 2008 the Council of State, France’s highest administrative body, rejected her appeal and upheld the earlier ruling.

The short-sighted decision to ban minarets in Switzerland is regrettable on several counts. First, it is in clear violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Switzerland is a signatory. The European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg may strike down the proposed move to insert the minaret ban in the Swiss constitution, causing immense embarrassment to the country. Moreover, the Council of Europe may take a decision to expel Switzerland for violating European and international human rights treaties. Second, the decision will tarnish the international image and standing of a country where the Red Cross originated, where the Geneva Convention was approved and where the United Nations has a permanent and conspicuous presence. Third, it is fraught with disastrous consequences for the country’s economy. It will deter tourists from the Gulf countries. Many Swiss companies fear an international backlash from their Muslim customers. Swiss exports, banking and businesses are likely to suffer a grave setback if Muslim consumers across the world decide to boycott Swiss products (as it happened in the case of Danish products in the wake of the cartoon controversy in 2006). Switzerland is the largest producer of processed halal food in the world with annual sales of $3.5 billion. This segment of Switzerland’s export market, which caters to Muslims across Europe, is likely to be severely affected. Fourth, the decision will further alienate the country’s Muslim community.

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