The Swiss ban on minarets

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.


Filed under Europe, Islam

11 responses to “The Swiss ban on minarets

  1. Ari

    In other news today, the Balkan Union will gather to discuss a police mission to stamp out Swiss intolerance of other cultures. The BU president has expressed fear that the Swiss vote will be imitated by other European states.

  2. Owen

    I trust I’m not being prejudiced but there appears to be a deep-rooted Swiss tradition that places of worship should avoid architectural forms that could attract the attention of anyone other than the most discreet devotee:

  3. Sarah Correia

    That makes sense. I don’t know much about Switzerland but that does fit the tendency for self-isolation that I mentioned.

    I’m not so worried about the implications inside Switzerland itself, but rather impressed by the way this polemics is being followed in other places in Europe.

  4. Sarah, Switz ban of minarets draw a sharp condemnation from both Jews and Christians. For example, In a press release, the ADL [Jewish Anti Defamation League] said this was not the first time a Swiss popular vote was used to promote religious intolerance. A century ago, a referendum banned Jewish ritual slaughter, to drive out its Jews, it said. Noting the overriding opposition from the government and most Swiss political parties to the ban, the ADL urged Swiss leaders to “be vigilant” in their defense of religious freedom, though the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) which forced the referendum, was the largest party in Swiss Parliament, holding two of the seven government ministries.

    Doug Saunders writes, for example, “While Kristallnacht was a violent and deadly event that foretold the Holocaust to come, and Switzerland’s referendum was merely an attempt at a constitutional amendment (likely to be blocked by European human-rights laws), the historical parallel was visible to many in the campaign of caricature and grotesque rhetoric aimed at the target population, including images of sacrificed animals, black-hooded women and armed terrorists.”

  5. Sarah, my opinion on this subject is that people of Switzerland have every right to decide about this matter using legitimate political means and democratic procedures. It is time that we all stop identifying whole communities or nations as members of particular religion, and religion should be a matter of public debate and deciding just like any other issue that concerns peoples happiness or interests.

  6. hello. As a portuguese Muslim, I agree that it is a kind of discrimination and though Western society has its “freedom of expression” or “freedom of speech”, it’s very despicable that there’s no respect for anyone nowadays, be them minorities or majorities. A portuguese saying: My freedom stops when the freedom of the other begins. And actually, it’s a very good advice and it should be put to practice in orther to stop this rivalry between nations.

  7. Sarah Correia

    Claudia, I don’t think freedom of speech should be under brackets. Also the question of respect is not so simple. I don’t think lack of respect is the rule in Western societies nowadays. In general people do respect each other and behave in a civic way towards each other.

    JC does have a point, but it’s very likely that this ban is violating the European Convention for Human Rights, of which Switzerland is part, and if so, then that means that the question that was formulated is illegitimate itself.

  8. Daniel

    J.C. you are dead wrong. One purpose of democracy and human rights is to protect the rights of minorities from being violated by the wishes of majority. Do you understand this concept?

  9. Daniel, actually I understand J.C. in a way. Many times we’ve been seeing democracy misused just for interest by people that have power, so, how can someone possibly know what democracy actually stands for? xD

  10. JonH

    “J.C. you are dead wrong. One purpose of democracy and human rights is to protect the rights of minorities from being violated by the wishes of majority. Do you understand this concept?”

    Daniel, the majority also has some rights – do you understand THAT concept?

    Why should non-Muslims have to be disturbed at all hours by the frequent calls to prayer from the minaret? (And before you mention church bells – these are only heard once a week, and not before dawn!)

    This is simply the democratic will of the Swiss people – so get over it.

  11. JonH

    Well, I heard many times from Muslims in the West that the Adhan is only called inside the masjid, no need for the demolition of the minarets still.

    The call for prayer is not the issue for those people, the issue is actually *seeing* the minarets. Which is kinda funny. lol