Sunday, November 29, 2009

Swiss voters' clear decision to ban construction of minarets

Swiss voters' clear decision on Sunday to ban the construction of minarets has generated a wide range of emotions, from stunned joy to rueful concern.

Supporters of the initiative said the Swiss electorate wanted to put a brake on the Islamicisation of their country, whereas opponents were concerned about the violation of rights, not to mention an international backlash and possible boycott of Swiss products.

"Forced marriages and other things like cemeteries separating the pure and impure – we don't have that in Switzerland and we don't want to introduce it," said Ulrich Schlüer, co-president of the Initiative Committee to ban minarets.

Oskar Freysinger, a member of the rightwing Swiss People's Party and a driving force in the campaign, said he was "stunned and dumbfounded" by Sunday's result "since the entire establishment was against us".

"I would like to say to all the Muslims listening that this will in no way change their right to practise their religion, to pray or to gather [in mosques]," he said. "However, society wants to put a safeguard on the political-legal wing of Islam, for which there is no separation between state and religion."

The president of the People's Party, Toni Brunner, said voters had clearly rejected the idea of parallel societies and the further expansion of Islam – including radical, political Islam – in Switzerland.

According to final results, 57.5 per cent of voters and a majority of cantons backed the initiative – up from 34 per cent last month. Turnout was high at around 53 per cent.

Brunner said people who settled here had to realise that they couldn't turn up to work in a head scarf or get special dispensation from swimming lessons.

Government reaction

The government said in a statement it respected the decision.

For Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, the outcome reflected fears among the population of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies, "which reject our national traditions and which could disregard our legal order".

"These concerns have to be taken seriously. The government has always done so and will continue to do so in future. However, we take the view that a ban on the construction of new minarets is not a feasible means of countering extremist tendencies," she said.

Widmer-Schlumpf underlined that Sunday's vote was only directed against the construction of new minarets. "It is not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture. Of that the government gives its assurance."

"Switzerland has lost"

Nevertheless, Saida Keller-Messahli, president of the Forum for an Advanced Islam, said the public's fears had been too great and "hatred had won over reason".

She said there would now be legal consequences, since the ban violated the freedom of religion.

The Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland also regretted the result, saying the propaganda of the campaign supporters had succeeded in frightening the majority of voters.

The federation said it was too soon to judge the negative social and legal consequences – what was important now was to strengthen their public relations and clear up any misunderstandings or prejudices concerning Islam.

"Switzerland has lost," said Rifa'at Lenzin from the European Project for Interreligious Learning in Zurich, adding that the country was "leading the way" for Islamophobia.

Lenzin was only partly surprised by the result, "which corresponds to the current mood". She said she was astonished, however, that the "subjective and far-fetched arguments" of the minaret opponents had found such great support.

She added that the opponents of the initiative had completely underestimated the situation and that the political parties had been asleep, with only the centre-right Radical Party actively campaigning. The public spaces had been dominated by the campaign supporters, she said.

Swiss values

Reinhard Schulze, a professor of Islamic studies at Bern University, said he was "very surprised" by the acceptance of the initiative.

He described the result as a "turning point", in that after many years of going in the other direction, voters had once again spoken for an unequal treatment of faiths.

"The next thing is obviously to look at how this plays with international law," he said, adding that he could already envisage complaints from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The Council of Religions, a body comprising Christian churches, Jews and Muslims, said in a statement it regretted the result. People of all faiths must work together even harder, it said, for the respect of rights of freedom, for dialogue with the Muslim community and for integration.

"These are values that make Switzerland strong," it said.

Swiss image abroad

Looking at political reaction, the centre-left Social Democratic Party warned in a statement against the exclusion of Muslims in Switzerland.

"The yes vote was probably the result of a diffuse fear of a religious minority," it said.

This fear must be taken seriously, it added, but it must not be misinterpreted as a vote of mistrust against all Muslims living in Switzerland.

The party said it was also concerned about Switzerland's image abroad, saying that a foreign ministry offensive was clearly necessary, along with stronger integration efforts at all state levels.

Jacques Neyrinck from the centre-right Christian Democratic Party stressed that Switzerland would be the only country in the world to ban the construction of minarets.

"Switzerland is heading straight for a battle with Islam," he said, adding that he feared a boycott of Swiss products.

"Dirty campaign"

The four minarets already attached to mosques in the country are not affected by the initiative, and the president of the Islamic community in Langenthal, canton Bern, assumed his organisation would be able to add a minaret to their mosque since it had already been approved.

Mutalip Karaademi said he was disappointed by the strong level of support and the "dirty campaign", describing Muslims and Islamists and terrorists.

But Langenthal mayor Thomas Rufener, from the People's Party, said he didn't think the minaret would be built "for political reasons".

Reaction to the Swiss anti-minaret vote in the wider Islamic community has reflected shock, sadness and concern, but also a determination to try to build bridges.

The vote revealed the hidden fears of many Swiss, and Muslims should respond by trying to build harmony across society, a leading Muslim scholar says.

The reaction of Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, was echoed by a number of other Muslim scholars and commentators whom spoke to outside Switzerland.

"This result should draw our attention to the reality of the hidden fears which have been underestimated by decision makers," said Gomaa.

"We think that priority should be given to meeting the challenge of building societies capable of integrating diversity and difference... and we are ready to give every support to such an effort," he told

The grand mufti is the highest official of religious law in a Sunni Muslim country. Gomaa is regarded as a champion of moderate Islam.

"My first reaction is one of surprise and disappointment," Babacar Ba, the Geneva ambassador of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), told

"It is a bad answer to a bad question. I fear that this kind of thing is simply a gift to extremism and intolerance."

"I think we must be very vigilant in the face of the upsurge of islamophobia," he added. "This vote is an open door to the dangerous process of calling fundamental freedoms into question."


It had been widely expected that the ban would be rejected by voters, but Jaber al-Alawani, a Muslim thinker and director of the Cordoba Institute in the United States, told that he was not surprised.

"Islamophobia is widespread in Europe, all the more so because rightwing extremists see it as a kind of defence of European identity, which they haven't so far quite been able to define."

A British Muslim, Imam Abduljalil Sajid, imam of Brighton, and a member of the national executive committee of Interfaith UK, warned that ordinary Muslims were likely to react angrily, even though, as he stressed, the minaret is not a religious requirement.

"It will be seen negatively throughout the Muslim world, [as yet] another problem of Islam versus the West. I don't want to see it develop negatively, but unfortunately that will be the case," he told

Palestinian law professor Anwar Abu Aisheh, speaking to the Swiss News Agency, agreed.

"The vote will give arguments to Muslim extremists. They will see a frontal attack against Islam and its symbols," he warned.

Measured response

Despite the disappointment felt by many Muslims, Gomaa called for a measured response.

"It is really important not to exploit this result wrongly for political ends, but to regard it as a call to build cooperation and harmony between our different religions and societies, in a new spirit," he said.

Ba agreed on the importance of not over-reacting and of trying to build bridges.

"The main thing is to keep calm and to realise how much work still needs to be done to defend basic freedoms. I think we must do this by ... taking a constructive part in the debate on all issues which cause fear and concern, and to try to bring people together in order to confront extremism wherever it comes from."

Alawani also appealed to Swiss Muslims to keep calm.

"Avoid irrational reactions, and respect the views of the Swiss voters," he said.

Misfer al-Kahtani, a Muslim thinker from Saudi Arabia agreed. He pointed out that many Swiss had voted against the initiative, but said that the Muslim minorities in Europe had to take into account the fears that many Europeans have about their religion.

"The real challenge is for the Muslim community to accept the decision by Swiss society ... and work to change the clichés adopted by those who called for the ban on minarets, by showing a good example and applying the ideas and values of Muslim civilisation," he told


A number of commentators reflected on what the vote said about Switzerland.

"Switzerland is noted for its capacity to integrate culturally diverse components ... and article 15 of the Swiss constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and belief," Gomaa commented.

"This isn't a show of racism by the Swiss, just an upsurge of selfishness, [they are] worried that nothing should come and trouble their peace," said law professor Abu Aisheh.

Mohamed Munir al-Ghodban, a Muslim thinker from Syria, pointed out that minarets had nothing to do with the basic tenets of Islam. But he also told that Muslims in Switzerland felt the vote interfered with their religious practices "which contradicts the basic principles of freedom and democracy, which Switzerland has been so proud of for such a long time."

Praise from European right

"Extreme right groups everywhere, in France, in Holland or anywhere in the world will use this vote in their favour," Imam Sajid warned, and immediate comments by rightwing leaders bear him out.

There were warm words of praise for the Swiss vote from Italy's Reform Minister, Roberto Calderoli, who told the Italian news agency ANSA that a clear sign had come from Switzerland: "Yes to church towers, no to minarets". He said Switzerland should be a model for Italy in this respect.

The head of Austria's rightwing Freedom Party, quoted by the Austrian news agency, also sees Switzerland as a model, a sentiment echoed by the general secretary of another rightwing party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria.

Marine le Pen, of the French National Front, said in a statement on the party's website that the Swiss had demonstrated their attachment to their "national identity, their countryside and their culture", despite calls from the "élites" not to vote in favour of the ban.