Minarets Banned In Switzerland – A Challenge And An Opportunity

Minaret Ban Campaign Poster

In a 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. 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.

Swiss minaret ban poster with woman in a veil.
Minaret Ban Campaign Poster

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. 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 standalone image of the mosque as well as the one with its surroundings, the mosque or the minaret does not appear imposing at all. Also, it is not that Switzerland is being 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 of 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  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 – challenges we must face together. We cannot blame the populists alone – 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.

Published by

Mohib Ahmad

Mohib is a management graduate, an Urdu aficionado and a photography amateur.

11 thoughts on “Minarets Banned In Switzerland – A Challenge And An Opportunity”

  1. Thanks for the illuminative post on this issue. I had heard of the Swiss vote on the radio, but the background of the issue was not clear.

    Also, welcome back to blogging – I hope this is a more regular effort. This blog had been largely inactive for months and would probably have most of its active readers by now. I hope it is revived now.

  2. The Swiss are funny people, I was surprised and thought it was a joke considering how neutral and broadminded the swiss generally are. I can’t stop but laughing at the status and image of the Muslim Community the world over.

    I agree with Tariq Ramadan’s article and believe that we as a community should work harder to increase the visibility of the positive aspects and achievements to beat the propoganda spread by the right wing media and political parties.

  3. On another note, Minaret’s don’t make mosques. I have been to many mosques in the UK which don’t have minaret and don’t look like a mosque in the traditional sense as they do back home. But that doesn’t make them any less a place for worship. The act of banning is so 15th Century, I thought Europe had grown over such things, but some things never change.

  4. Agreed that a Meenar is not necessary part of a Masjid but, is there anybody who would ask the people voting for the ban, as to how banning the minarets arrest the Islamisation of Switzerland in particular or Europe in general? What is so objectionable about Islamisation? Where are the broadminded people who ask protesting people to spend their energies on something constructive? The people who have commented on the issue have not done more than paying lip service. The making of law in fact is open call of stoping Islam, here, by force. Nobody talks about the denial of citizenship to many people (most of them Muslims) while the comments of Tariq Ramazaan are being used to tell Muslims that they have not integrated. Having travelled a lot, I experienced that ‘integration’ means you are not a Christian. Another notch of shame is that if one is a Christian, his/her skin colour, height or body build are accepted as not being compatible for being ‘integrated’. What else can be defined as discrimination. How long this ‘apologetic’ attitude going to keep peace is the question of future.

  5. I completely agree with Naqqad. I fail to understand how banning minarets is going to stop islamification. Where will it stop next? Tomorrow if they say the tomb like structures are the problem will they ban them as well? I am not trying to oversee what might not happen but this certainly does not set a tolerant trend in Europe.

    Well, its not a first instance of this creed. In east london, Muslims have been trying to build a mosque in west ham for almost 8-9 years and though the local council gave them the persmission, some residents of the west ham are still stopping the construction saying we dont want Islamification of Europe or Britain. Then we have the uber fascits like BNP, SIOE to support them. Infact SIOE was made for this particular purpose of opposing and stopping building of mosques in Europe.

  6. Problem with the islamic community is to carry their problem across the continent. People bomb somebody in some part of the world for happening in palestine. That creates the fear and doubt about the whole concept. Further the respect for other religion in the countries where muslim are majority is pathetic.

    With the advent of communication and global village, every action in any part of the world has got equal and opposite reaction. Every country which follows democracy goes by the majority and the decision of the swiss equal to the decision of saudi or any gcc country not to have any other religion.

  7. Satwagunam,

    By the same logic that you talk about lack of democracy in the so called Islamic world. We are human beings and so we must be engaging each other may be by the way of interference. If a land is usurped by force, we are certainly going to call it, even if it is not connected to Muslims. Fortunately, Muslims have not done it in this era of Nation States. If one want to connect this to past, remember, we are talking about future and present. Past had its gory times and there too Islam had a glorious past. To the Barrack Obamas, the same logic still applies. What is your take on his self righteousness? Have you any teeth to call him a Crusader or invoke religion. So easy for Islam!!

  8. Naqqaad,
    By the same token about tolerance, why is there no pan-islamic protest about religious intolerance in the islamic countries? We can clearly see the christian countries protesting against a swiss ban but no peep from muslims in those countries about the country from where they have migrated (assuming they are first generation immigrants from saudi, etc).

    You are also not addressing the issue of the exact behaviour in islamic countries towards other religions. At a human rights level, I agree that minarets should be allowed or at least shouldnt be banned with the fear that a particular religion might take over. But it is a point to ponder why construction of gurudwaras or churches or temples or synagogues never created the same problem. There is reasonably well found fear, and its not paranoid, about muslims bringing their religion into every sphere of public life in these countries where more often than not people have progressed/changed to leave it in their private space. Till the time followers of islam show the same behaviour, people are always going to be skeptical in these countries about growing islamic population and their public exhibition of religion at every opportunity.

  9. Well, I see nothing wrong here in what Switzerland has decided or banned. Isn’t it too selfish to ask Switzerland to allow Minarets while Saudi Arabia, the flagship country of Islam, doesn’t allow a little bit of religious freedom at all. In Saudi Arabia, you cannot pray/worship in public if you are not a muslim, applies to everyone, jews, christians. You cannot build a church in Saudi Arabia. Even worse, a non muslim person cannot be buried in Saudi soil. Muslims should not complain unless they are willing to offer others(infidels) freedom.

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