In aÃ‚Â decision with wide-ranging implications, 57.5% of Swiss voters voted in favor of a ban that will constitutionally outlaw building minarets in the country. The support for the proposal was universal with 22 of the 26 Swiss provinces voted in favor of the ban. Switzerland has almost 400,000 Muslims out of a total population of 7.7 million.Ã‚Â The vote was preceded by a demonstrably Islamophobic campaign.
One poster showed a veiled woman in black with only her eyes visible and multiple minarets as weapons casting a black shadow on the Swiss flag. Another showed a minaret standing in the river in place of the fallen Lucerne water-hall and the words “Stop Islamization” printed in red. Yet another poster read “No Islamic symbols in Switzerland. Consider a ban on minarets”. The logo from the official website shows a minaret ripping apart the heart of Switzerland.
The minaret controversy started in 2005 when the Turkish Islamic Cultural Center in Wangen bei Olten in north-western Switzerland asked for permission to construct a minaret at their mosque. The local Communal Building and Planning Commission rejected the application but the the Building and Justice Department reversed the decision. Local community members who were opposing the construction then went to the Administrative Court of the Canton of Solothurn where they lost their appeal and the Federal Supreme Court eventually affirmed the ruling of the lower court.Ã‚Â The 20 ft (6 m) minaret was erected in July 2009. Consequently the proponents of the ban brought it to vote as Swiss Supreme Court rulings can be overturned by a majority of voters.
As is obvious from the standaloneÃ‚Â image of the mosque as well as the one with itsÃ‚Â surroundings, the mosque or the minaret does not appear imposing at all. Also, it is not that Switzerland is beingÃ‚Â besieged by minarets all over the country. There are just four minarets in Switzerland and only two more were being planned. Moreover, this ban is specifically against minarets and other religions are free from its purview.
The international condemnation of the ban has been swift. Swiss Justice Minister indicated that the higher European court could over-rule the Sunday vote. French Foreign Minister told a radio program that the vote was “an expression of intolerance”. Vatican joined Swiss bishops in condemning the vote and Muslim countries obviously voiced their disapproval. New York Times in a hard hitting editorial termed the ban as “disgraceful”.
Switzerland has had a reputation of being neutral. It is the only country in the western Europe that has not joined EU. It has a unique form of government where voters can not only over-turn Supreme Court rulings but also have the power to decide upon the citizenship applications. In 2008, BBC News highlighted the case of two brothers ofÃ‚Â Turkish origin who have lived their entire lives in Switzerland but are not able to get Swiss citizenship. The brothers had passed all language tests and the authorities recommended them for citizenship. However, since their application was subject to a final approval by local community members through secret ballots, it had been denied four times. Sometimes it is difficult even for the grandchildren of the immigrants to receive Swiss citizenship.
Right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), that has seen its influence grow tremendously since 1991, was at the forefront Ã‚Â of minaret ban campaign. It has been accused of running racially charged campaigns in the past. The party has been condemned by UN refugee agency for its blatantly anti-immigrant campaigns. This time – as it has done in the past – it exploited the fears of Swiss people. A good example is this blog post (use Google Translate) which is titled “Tolerance rather than ignorance”. The author supported the ban and thinks that building minarets will lead to Islamization of Europe and more intolerance in the society. Clearly the opponents of ban failed to reach out to such Swiss citizens who seem to be misinformed about the whole issue. Tariq Ramadan, who is one of the most influential voice for European Muslims and a Swiss citizen himself, alluded to this failure in an article in Guardian.
Who is to be blamed? I have been repeating for years to Muslim people that they have to be positively visible, active and proactive within their respective western societies. In Switzerland, over the past few months, Muslims have striven to remain hidden in order to avoid a clash. It would have been more useful to create new alliances with all these Swiss organisations and political parties that were clearly against the initiative. Swiss Muslims have their share of responsibility but one must add that the political parties, in Europe as in Switzerland have become cowed, and shy from any courageous policies towards religious and cultural pluralism. It is as if the populists set the tone and the rest follow. They fail to assert that Islam is by now a Swiss and a European religion and that Muslim citizens are largely “integrated”. That we face common challenges, such as unemployment, poverty and violence Ã¢â‚¬â€œ challenges we must face together. We cannot blame the populists alone Ã¢â‚¬â€œ it is a wider failure, a lack of courage, a terrible and narrow-minded lack of trust in their new Muslim citizens. [Tariq Ramadan]
Minarets are not a requirement for mosques but Muslims are and successful communities are built not upon symbols but individuals. Muslims should use this opportunity to build alliances, reach out to local communities and proactively participate in civic activities in addition to performing their religious duties. The issue at stake here goes way beyond minarets. It is the trust deficit that seems to have built up between Muslims and others in parts of Europe. Only by addressing the fears that led to the passing of this odious ban can there be a meaningful resolution of this issue. These fears have to be addressed even though they might be unjustified. Especially if they are unjustified. Otherwise it is going to be one battle to another.