Swiss referendum prohibits construction of mosque minarets
MONDAY DECEMBER 07, 2009
A referendum presented to Swiss voters on 29 November passed with 57 per cent of the votes, thus prohibiting further construction of Islamic minarets throughout Switzerland. The referendum was initiated by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has a plurality of seats in the Swiss parliament. The lengthy campaign to attain the petition signatures necessary for a popular vote provoked debates across the nation of 7.6 million on the delicate nature of balancing tolerance of differing religions and traditions with the protection of Swiss culture. Yet, the principles that the referendum seemingly undermines are cornerstones of Swiss society, notably the country’s historical emphasis on cultural inclusion and religious freedom.
The vote surprised government officials as initial polls suggested a majority of voters would reject the measure. At the institutional level, there was widespread opposition to the ban by the Swiss government, church leaders, the Vatican, and major newspapers. However, the SVP, which executed a visible and vocal campaign in support of the ban, ultimately won over a majority of voters in Switzerland in what it characterised as a “mandate to the government to impose respect for [the Swiss] state.”
The Swiss People’s Party has asserted that the ban does not interfere with religious freedom, distinguishing between the right to freely practise one’s religion and the privilege of displaying a symbol that, according to the SVP, is political in nature. Minarets, the tall architectural spires atop or adjacent to some Islamic mosques, are not a religious requirement, as only four of Switzerland’s 150 mosques and Muslim prayer centres display minarets. Though minarets are most often beacons from which Muslims are called to daily prayers, Switzerland already prohibits this practise as a violation of the public space. The SVP has posited that continued construction of the imposing structures merely symbolises the rise of Islam’s political ideology and legal code, sharia law, which stigmatises the rest of Swiss society and is incompatible with Switzerland’s tradition.
Although the Swiss government disagrees with the ban, it is bound by the constitution to enforce the referendum. The Federal Constitution has been modified to prohibit the construction of minarets in Switzerland. The government, though, has attempted to quell potential backlash by downplaying the implications of the prohibition. In a statement issued by the Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, a former member of the SVP, the referendum was characterised as restrictive of the “freedom to display the Muslim faith.” However, Ms Widmer-Schlumpf added, “The freedom to profess one’s faith in Islam and to practise the religion alone or in community with others is not affected by the construction ban in any way.”
Farhad Afshar, a sociologist at Switzerland’s Berne University and the director of the Coordination of Islamic Organisations, argued that the message sent by the prohibition of minarets is more detrimental than the practical implications on freedom of expression. He told the New York Times, “Most painful for us is not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote. Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community.”
In an interview with The International, Ms Silvia Baer, the Assistant General Secretary of the SVP, reaffirmed the notion of the minaret as a political icon. She said, “The minarets are being seen as a symbol of political Islam and the Swiss people said ‘no’ to that, and only to that.” Though to what extent the minarets represent political icons, rather than religious or cultural, and in what manner the construction of minarets is perceived as undermining of Swiss culture remain vague.
Though tensions between Muslim communities and ethnic Europeans have been embodied in a number of discordant displays of cultural cleavages, the legally enshrined prohibition on the seemingly innocuous construction of Islamic minarets is likely to accentuate, rather than alleviate, these divisions, as the controversial referendum undeniably singles out the Muslim community. By specifically focusing on an architectural icon unique to Islam, the prohibition singularly impacts and isolates an entire community of the Swiss public. According to Taner Hatipoglu, the president of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Zurich, “The [Swiss referendum] has achieved something everyone wanted to prevent, and that is to influence and change the relations to Muslims and their social integration in a negative way.”
In 2005, urban riots in France highlighted the growing alienation of Muslim communities across Europe, which was further exacerbated this year by parliamentary inquiries into the social acceptance of the burka, the veil worn by traditional Muslim women. Other recent events, such as a Danish publication’s disparaging depiction of Mohammed and impassioned disagreements over the construction of mosques in Germany have been focal points of social strain. The sporadic, yet widespread violence that resulted from these incidents, such as the attacks on Danish embassies in Syria, Iran, and Lebanon, is precisely the element that supporters of the referendum wish to avert in Switzerland.
In recent years Europe has been redefining itself as an open and peaceful society, with prominent aversion to the use of military force, emphasis on integration of peoples, and extension of exclusive freedoms to waves of immigrant populations from Africa, South America, the Middle East, and Asia. However, European nations still elevate their respective cultures to tacitly endearing levels in a social phenomenon referred to as Europhilia. Demographic trends which appear to threaten the cultural sanctity of European societies have been widely opposed, spurring the rise of nationalist parties across Europe. During the European Union’s parliamentary elections this year, parties running on anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and border security platforms made significant gains in Austria, Hungary, Britain, Spain, and the Netherlands, as well as modest boosts in Germany, France, Italy, and Belgium.
Though Europe’s lenient immigration policies have led to influxes of foreigners throughout the continent, Muslim communities have tended to corral themselves into distinct cultural enclaves where local customs, traditions, and even legal statutes are dismissed or misunderstood. This has resulted in a growing sentiment that Islamic communities are, however unwittingly, annexing portions of Europe by rejecting integration in society. The SVP has endorsed this caricature of the Muslim community, having suggested that the referendum “proves equally that the Swiss people refuse the emergence of parallel societies, a consequence of the rampant Islamisation of our country.”
In a somewhat tepid denunciation of the prohibition, Ms Widmer-Schlumpf conceded that the “popular vote is undeniably a reflection of the fears and uncertainties that exist among the population; concerns that Islamic-fundamentalist ideas could lead to the establishment of parallel societies, which cut themselves off from the rest of society, which reject the traditions of our state and society, and which disregard our laws. These concerns must be taken seriously.”
Participatory democratic principles
In Switzerland, participatory democracy is a basic tenet of its political system, as initiatives are commonly put forth to the voters after having acquired the requisite number of petition signatures. In such a bottom-up decision-making system, initiatives that resonate with the public can impact government policy in striking ways. Referendums are thus an important aspect of Swiss democracy, which gives an influential voice to the will of the people. In this respect the Swiss national referendum on minarets is an expression of Swiss tradition, yet it is also a testament to the complications that can arise from such a system, as much of the rhetoric in support of the minaret ban does not accurately reflect Swiss society, but rather problems facing broader Europe.
According to the Swiss Federal Office for Migration, there are 1.8 million foreign nationals permanently residing in Switzerland. However, 1.4 million of these foreign born immigrants are from Europe. Switzerland’s population is approximately 5 per cent Muslim, with less than 500,000 adherents to the faith. Concerns of “rampant Islamisation” are therefore not supported by the actual demographics of Switzerland, neither in terms of total population or receptivity of Swiss Muslims.
Trends throughout Europe have tended towards aggressive Islamic immigration from less inclusive societies of North Africa and the Middle East, including Libya, Morocco, and Egypt, sparking broad clashes between secular societies in Europe and fundamentalist Muslim immigrants. A majority of foreign born Muslims in Switzerland, though, come from Yugoslavia and Turkey, which ascribe to more secular principles. Switzerland also has a large community of natural born Muslim citizens.
According to Mr Afshar, “Muslims are well-integrated [in Switzerland] compared with France or Germany. This result has nothing to do with the Muslims living in Switzerland.” The referendum prohibiting minarets thus appears to be more a reflection of Europe’s divisions than Switzerland’s, although the campaign promotion frequently alluded to an increasingly isolationist Swiss Muslim population.
Creating a clash of civilisations
The Swiss People’s Party has continually asserted that the referendum was intended to preserve Swiss culture, not to denigrate or ostracise Islam. An important facet of Switzerland’s secular-based society is its respect for all faiths, and its protection of differing religious and cultural heritages. It is therefore an apparent contradiction to support a referendum that isolates one religion in its purported attempt to preserve a culture that places important emphasis on the protection of diversity. According to Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation, “A constitutional amendment that’s targeted towards one religious community is discriminatory and abhorrent.”
However, Ms Baer categorically rejected this assertion in an interview with The International. She explained that the referendum was solely intended to target extremism, adding that “Switzerland is a free country and has a long standing tradition of freedom of religion.” She claimed that the referendum was not intended to send a message to Islamic communities, as “the Swiss people stand for the values of our heritage and therefore say, ‘Muslims and anyone else are welcome, but everybody has to abide to the laws of our land.’”
When the initiative was first launched in May 2007, Oskar Freysinger, a member of parliament for the Swiss People’s Party, told the BBC, “Banning minarets would send a clear signal that our European laws, our Swiss laws, have to be accepted. And if you want to live here, you must accept them.” However, the construction of minarets violated no Swiss law preceding the passage of the referendum, therefore, the consequence of the vote is an imposition upon the Muslim community of a restriction that they must abide by, rather than an enforcement of a preexisting statute that had been violated. Ultimately, the effect of the prohibition may be a more public animosity between two cultures in a nation with a dormant clash, or worse, a creation of hostility where no previous cultural conflict existed.
Though Switzerland’s Federal Department of Justice and Police concluded that the ban may violate human rights, supporters of the referendum cite the prohibition as the will of the people. SVP’s official statement following the referendum vote on 29 November stated, “The result of this vote clearly illustrates the malaise that reigns among the Swiss population facing the rampant Islamisation of our society.”
The ripple effect
The international response by Muslims was indicative of heightened concerns of a growing isolation of the Islamic faith. Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the top Shiite cleric in Lebanon, questioned the freedom of Muslims to express their faith in Europe and warned of further tensions between Christians and Muslims. “The action to ban the minaret is a discriminatory act in itself. It shouldn’t be done in a country that believes in secularism, democracy, and liberal minds,” according to Ahmad Baddjai, chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, an Islamic organisation in Indonesia.
Emboldened by the broad public support for the ban in Switzerland, parties in the Netherlands and Denmark suggested they may seek similar initiatives in their countries. Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, said that his party will petition the Dutch government “to make a similar referendum possible in the Netherlands.” Pia Kjaersgaard, leader of the Danish People’s Party, and Martin Henriksen, a party deputy, both applauded the Swiss referendum and expressed their desire to implement the prohibition in Denmark.
On the other hand, the referendum garnered some support among centre-left rights activists concerned about the role of women in Islamic culture. The minaret, some have argued, is a reminder of the male-dominated structure of Muslim societies.
Demonstrations against the referendum were organised in the Swiss capital, Berne, outside the Swiss parliament building, and at the Swiss People’s Party offices in Zurich.
Though the backlash has been vocal, intemperance has been muted. The referendum, while controversial, is notable in that it represents an opportunity for broader cultural dialogue. The purported basis for the prohibition is the protection of Swiss culture, a standpoint that can resonate with most any culture, and in fact, is the same position taken by those opposed to the ban. Though there are varying interpretations of the implications of the ban for Switzerland’s image of tolerance and diversity, both proponents and opponents of the referendum espouse their commitment to Swiss culture, and to the protection of religious freedoms. Commonality in this regard can become the basis for further understanding of one another, both pragmatic concerns relating to the politicisation of Islam, and the injurious affectations by which the referendum was publicised. When the rhetoric surrounding the passionate debate subsides, there is likely to remain a heightened sense of cultural divergence, however, with the prospective hope of broader reconciliation based on a respect for both Swiss and Muslim culture.