The Swiss Minaret Ban

Book Cover, the Swiss Minaret Bam

On 29 November 2009 Swiss voters approved the proposal to introduce a ban on building minarets on Swiss territory into the Federal Constitution. The result surprised large parts of the media and political class.

The most frequently mentioned motive of supporters of the initiative was the wish to give a clear signal against the expansion of Islam and the type of society associated with this religion. The vote’s real objective was not the minaret as such. Rather, the minaret was being turned into a symbol of the issues raised by Islam.

This book was originally published in French and Arabic prior to the vote, in November 2009. Because of international interest in the Swiss debate and the vote on minarets, the book is now being published in a number of other languages.

Except for the afterword, the book’s contents are largely unchanged, with some minor adaptations; the information and analyses provided before the vote remain as valid now as then.

The foreword aims briefly to revisit the vote and its consequences: what happened on 29 November 2009 and why? It is a simple analysis of the voting blocs, and then reflections on why the voting blocs voted as they did.

The First Chapter, In the Shadow of the Minaret: Origins and Implications of a Citizens’ Inititative raises the issue that, paradoxically, minarets are rare in Switzerland. When the controversy started in 2005, only two had been built. The Zurich minaret had been inaugurated in 1963. Eighteen metres tall, it stands above the little mosque of the Ahmadiyya movement, whose first missionaries arrived in Switzerland in 1946. (Ahmadis are strongly opposed by other Muslims: considered “non-Muslim” in Pakistan and elsewhere, they are denied access to Mecca.) Other minarets signifying mosques and their history are examined.

The next chapter, Citizens’ Initiatives in Switzerland explains how the right to “citizens’ initiatives” is key to Swiss democracy. It allows individuals involved in politics or a group of citizens to force a vote on a proposed revision of the Constitution. This revision may consist of adding, removing or altering one of the Constitution’s articles. The right exists at both the cantonal and federal levels. At the cantonal level, the initiative can in addition be used to propose draft legislation.

The next chapter examines The Minaret in the History of Islam. The minaret is no more part of the origins of Islam than the cathedral is of Christianity’s origins. Even so, this emblem of Muslim architecture has been part of Islam’s history since at least the 8th century AD. From this time, the minaret became a constant feature of mosques in much of the Muslim world, and eventually spread to regions where it was previously uncommon.

Minarets – short, tall, thin, fat, square, round, octagonal, spiral, brick, stone – call the faithful to prayer and demonstrate the presence of Islam in a highly visible way. As of the 13th century, in particular, they became dazzling symbols of the triumph of Islam.

Facts and figures come in the next chapter, Islam in Switzerland: Figures. Any discussion of Islam in Switzerland needs to distinguish between the growth of a community and organisation of its religion. The question of a Muslim population is important because the number of people identifying with Islam is so large and so recent.

There were few Muslims in Switzerland before 1970. Politicised Arabspeaking Muslims began to arrive from the 1950-1960s following political repression in the Arab world. They (and not the immigrant workers who also began to arrive at this time) were responsible for the first attempts at self-organisation even though they were then only few in number.

After the facts and figures, the next chapter examines the Cultural Challenge: Islamic Architecture Crosses into the West. In Europe, dissociating religion from culture has liberated artistic creativity among Muslims. There is not so much a single “Islamic architecture” here, defined by a static religious canon, as relatively loose religious standards with very diverse architectural traditions. Islam’s crossing into the West does not mean reproducing a cultural model so much as a space of architectural inventiveness.

This chapter aims to demonstrate that architectural inventiveness has long been a part of Islamic architecture through its impulse towards cultural exchange. It also shows the current extent, and limits, of the westernisation of Islam through the construction of new mosques in Europe.

Edinburgh Mosque

Politicians enter the scene in the next chapter: Oskar Freysinger: Let’s Not Be the Victims of Multiculturalism.

While that might be a title that somewhat presses buttons in Australia with its somewhat successful model of integration and multiculturalism – ever since Prime Minister Bob Hawke inserted this firmly onto the national conversation with the One Nation policy, this chapter is the narrative of one Swiss politician and his expectations with regard to the citizen’s initiative, which he did not really expect to get up.

Oskar Freysinger—parliamentarian, founder of the UDC party in the Canton of Valais, and writer—is above all known as a public speaker, and often accused of populism. His website says his vocation is to “ask the difficult questions”. He is particularly motivated by the possible dangers arising from poorly controlled immigration. This is an interesting (if not provactive) collation of Freysinger’s statements and writings.

Interior of Cordoba Mosque

Does Islam really intend to conquer the West? This question is raised and examined in The Conquest of the West Will Not Take Place. Here is an interesting observation raised in this chapter:

Having pushed anathema to its extremes, the new jihadists no longer have any societies to liberate and can no longer be involved in politics. They do not have a precise goal (a territory or state of their own, modifying the interplay of political forces, regime change), but aim to create confrontations and media shocks, and destroy the symbols of political imperialism (that is to say of American power).

In the next chapter, Antonio Hodgers: Fundamentalist Criticism of Islam is also Dangerous, there is an account of the pitfalls of integration not well thought out. Here are the first three paragraphs of this chapter:

Antonio Hodgers, a Swiss citizen of Argentine origin, has been a member of parliament since 2007. President of the Geneva Green Party and engaged in politics since his youth, he is active on behalf of many causes, particularly integration issues. He is also committed to promoting the political rights of foreigners at the municipal level.

His political orientation could hardly fail to bring him into conflict with the SVP/UDC on issues of immigration and diversity. As early as 2008, when the SVP/UDC proposed a motion to expel foreigners who refuse to integrate, he criticised the “fundamentalists of integration”. Then he started to fight for diversity on a new front: the initiative to ban the construction of further minarets. In an op-ed piece in Geneva’s Le Temps newspaper, he called the initiative “fundamentalist” since it has the same worldview as Islamic fundamentalists, based on the belief that civilisations are irrepressibly different and therefore condemned to war.

For Hodgers, the initiative merely used the minaret as a hook. The real issue was Islam – which he considers a trumped-up problem. He emphasises that there is a difference between Islam and Muslims, and Islam is often mainly transmitted by cultures that are “not necessarily all that religious”. His example is the Islam of the Balkans, which, according to him, is above all cultural, secular and patriarchal – witness the first anniversary celebrations of Kosovo’s existence as a state, to which he was invited and which were replete with wine and pork. “That too is an aspect of the reality of Islam,” he reminds us.

The next chapter examines A Minaret Ban in the Federal Constitution, wherein the prohibition on the construction of minarets is inserted into section 72 of the Swiss constitution, the article on Church and State. What is the connection between this ban and human rights? This chapter raises this question.

The chapter on Building Churches in Islamic Lands Today raises interesting questions. The majority of Middle Eastern states are governed by authoritarian regimes, which use a number of methods to exercise varying degrees of close control over all forms of religious, political and cultural expression. The regimes distinguish between religions which enjoy official recognition and those which, like the Baha’i faith, are consigned to illegality (in Iraq and Iran) or legal non-existence (Egypt and Jordan).

Now and then, western democracy provides the opportunity for each side of a question to be debated and examined. In the next Chapter, the Initiative is Just the Beginning of a Slippery Slope, a Turkish Muslim and young entrepreneur (read businessman) resident in Switzerland responds to questions to where this all might lead. Fear is the key; will this suppression of expressions of Islamic culture stop here? What about dialogue?

Sober observations are contained in the next chapter, From Minarets to the “Muslim Question”: the New Critique of Islam. The citizens’ initiative that set out to ban the building of minarets in Switzerland is not only the result of a particular political context: the critical discourse of its initiators is part of a broader perspective. It draws its language, lexicon and reasoning from a critique of Islam that developed in the wake of the decline of Communism and consolidated after the attacks of 11 September 2001. The initiative showcases the ability of this transnational critique to take root in Switzerland and seize the opportunities that its political system offers.

What happened after the ban on minarets was inserted into the Swiss Constitution? The next chapter, The Minarets: No Muslim Rage considers responses by western nations and by worshipping Muslims in Switzerland.

After the referendum on the minaret ban, one might well have expected a Danish cartoon type scenario: mass boycotts, demonstrations, even attacks on embassies. One year on from the vote, none of that—or almost none—has happened.

The minaret itself is not the object of worship.

The next chapter examines the obvious symbols of Islam in the west. From the Top of the Minaret: Symbols and Social Obliviousness looks at the minarets, the Danish cartoons affair, the film Fitna by the Danish parliamentarian, and the controversy surrounding the burqa in France.

The minaret question is part of a new frontline of tensions surrounding Islam in the West, where what is at stake are signs and symbols, not the material development of Islamic standards. What characterises this new frontline above all is that it is disconnected from everyday life. The number of minarets in Switzerland is currently four, and applications for planning permission are rare. As for the burqa, it is worn by a tiny minority in France and is deeply controversial even within the Muslim community. By contrast, there is a strong consensus in favour of the hijab in Islamised segments of society. The Danish cartoons might have gone unnoticed if some sheikhs had not been offended and given them hefty publicity. The same is true of the film Fitna.

This book is available as a download for reading. Whilst the chapters appear to be compiled by a select group of individuals, there is a more than reasonable attempt to objectify and analyse the Swiss ban on minarets and situate this ban against the background of the larger issue of the visibility of Islam in Western Europe and the responses this engenders on each side, looking at the other. Fear is false expectations appearing real. This book really exposes the need for dialogue and understanding at all levels in society.

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