Last Sunday, 28 November, the Swiss approved in referendum a ban on the construction of new minarets. While it is usually stressed that minarets are not an essential element in a mosque, this ban is an undeniable form of discrimination aimed against the Muslim community.
The construction of this 6 meters high minaret was the motivation for the launch of the referendum.
Switzerland is a very peculiar country, with unique political traditions. It has a much stronger tendency for self-isolation than any other country in Western Europe and the outcome of this referendum reflects that tendency.
In any society, religious buildings serve as visible markers of the presence of a community. In any town, the location, volume and style of each religious building reveals a lot about the religious community that it serves, but also about the society in which this community is integrated.
It is undeniable that the construction of religious buildings is often closely linked to demonstrations of power on the part of those who build them. Many examples come to my mind. The Sacré Coeur was built on the top of Montmatre after the defeat of the Commune of Paris. Overlooking the city, it was a powerful reminder of the triumph of the conservative France, “la fille ainée de l’Eglise”. The Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican has on its frontspiece the family name of the Pope Paul V, Borghese. The siege of the Patriarchate of Lisbon, the Sé Catedral of Lisbon was built on the location of a mosque shortly after the Christian forces conquered it to the Moors (1147). The church underwent many transformations overtime and in the 1930s was restored to acquire medieval aspect. This was part of the cultural policy of the dictatorial regime of Salazar in that phase, to enhance the ancestry of Portugal and its glorious past.
But the presence of religious buildings also reveals the ability of a society to cope with diversity. In Portugal, the first Synagogue to be built after the forced conversion of the Jews, inaugurated in 1904, is hidden in a courtyard behind another building, with no façade to the street, because the law did not allow non-Catholic worship places to have their entry visible from the street (the law nonetheless was a positive step away from centuries of total intolerance to other religions). An opposite example is the city of Sarajevo, where, within a few minutes walking distance, stand the Mosque, the Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals and the Synagogue. It was precisely this diversity that Serb nationalists tried to destroy (and, to a large extent, did succeed).
The construction of mosques as a demonstration of power is a goal pursued in many European countries by radical and conservative Muslims, who benefit from the financial support of authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia. The question of transparency over financial organization of religious organizations is a major issue in any democratic society, as the problems surrounding the pseudo-religion of Scientology have shown us. As with all human activities in a free society, the question of the abuse of religious freedom is very relevant for the balance and strength of democracy, and the challenge posed in specific by the Islamist political ideology, who appropriates the religious legacy of Islam to legitimize its totalitarian goals cannot be ignored.
But this is not what was put up for referendum. What was put up for referendum was a measure that aimed at the legalization of discrimination of one religion in particular. This was not about having safeguards against the misuse of religion for political purposes, and it wasn’t about the need to contain Islamic extremism either .
Many people have interpreted the outcome of this referendum as a reflex of people’s fear over the real or imagined threat of Islam. But, with the Muslims comprising 5% of the total population and no recorded incidents with Islamic extremists, why should the Swiss be afraid?
This ban, after a xenophobic and openly racist campaign launched by the far right is rather a reflex of the Swiss tendency for self-isolation. By banning the construction of new minarets, what the Swiss are in fact saying is that they cannot tolerate the presence of Muslims to become visible.
The preservation of the beautiful skyline of Swiss towns has often been invoked. The landscape is undoubtedly one of the most important elements of Swiss collective identity. But, was Switzerland magnificent landscape under threat? So far, only four mosques had minarets, all of which of modest height. The controversy that lead to the referendum was about the attempt to prevent the construction of a 6 meters high minaret in the mosque of a small town. As you can see in the picture, the impact on the skyline is rather modest. Even if the ban had been rejected, any projected minaret would have to comply with urbanistic regulations which are, in Switzerland, rather strict. So, had the ban not been approved, that wouldn’t mean that minarets would grow like mushrooms after the rain.
A dangerous ideal of purity underlies this ban. This happened in Switzerland, a small country with an atypical political system, but it reflects and resounds on a growing phenomenon of xenophobia around Europe, of which the Muslims are now the main target.