Winter 2010, Vol. 12, No. 3

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An Army of One

From the Editor:
The End of the Christian Right

The Open and Affirming Lutherans

Angling for Anglicans

The Fighting Atheists

Not in My Canton

China's Lama Obsession

Scientology's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

Letter to the Editor


New books



Letter From Switzerland:
 Not in My Canton

çois Mayer



During a conference at the Vatican in early November, I was having dinner with a veteran Swiss journalist at a restaurant near St. Peter’s when the conversation turned to the vote on banning minarets that was about to be held in our country. “My forecast is 57 percent,” said my interlocutor, who claimed to be good at predicting the outcome of elections.

On the evening of November 29, he was proved right—except for the fact that it wasn’t, as he expected, 57 percent against the ban, but 57.5 percent in favor.

My journalist friend wasn’t alone. Even the ban’s most active supporters had not dreamed of such an outcome: They seemed overwhelmed at first by the magnitude of what they had achieved.

True, the leading political survey institute in Switzerland, gfs.bern, had noticed something unusual two weeks before the vote. Support for the ban was growing, which didn’t match the usual pattern for this kind of popular initiatives. But opposition was still running at 53 percent to 37 percent. It seemed impossible that the numbers would be reversed.

Still, an evangelical political activist had warned me: “You will be surprised.” And I should have known better.

A year earlier, my Religioscope Institute decided to sponsor a book edited by Patrick Haenni and Stéphane Lathion entitled Les Minarets de la Discorde (“The Minarets of Discord”), which appeared two months before the vote. Our goal was to shine some light on the issues raised and to pay particular attention to the views of the ban’s supporters.

I myself had given a few lectures on Islam in Switzerland, and each time could tell that a majority of the audience was going to vote for the ban, although only a minority would say so openly. But I thought my listeners were not representative, and still believed that ban would be defeated, even if I no longer felt sure of the margin.

Clearly, I should have trusted my eyes rather than the surveys. A majority of Swiss voters had not spoken openly because they felt the media and political elites would not understand their concerns. Writing in the newsweekly L’Hebdo on December 3, journalist Michel Audétat suggested that the vote had been a reaction against “moralizing” attempts to suppress open debate about Islam through labeling any criticism as “Islamophobic” and racist.

In an op-ed published the same day in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, German communication expert Hans-Hermann Tiedje contended that, when it came to Muslims, journalists and average citizens were “living in separate worlds.” Journalists, still living in “the shadow of Hitler’s crimes,” find it impossible not to accept any newcomer, while average citizens feel that those “who do not want to integrate must go back home.” (Muslims constitute five percent of the Swiss population; only 10 percent are citizens.)

In fact, surveys indicate that supporters of the ban opposed what is known in German as the Multikulti agenda with a range of concerns about Muslims, Islam, and the Islamic world, including:

•       immigrant demographics (“they will soon become a majority and take over”);

•       radicalism and violence post-9/11;

•       the status of women (there was a feminist vote in favor of the ban);

•       lack of religious reciprocity (“why minarets here if people cannot worship freely in Saudi Arabia?”);

•       a year-long crisis involving two Swiss businessmen detained in Libya in retaliation for the brief arrest in Geneva of one of President Muammar al-Gaddafi’s sons for mistreating two of his servants.

In addition, some Swiss simply felt that minarets did not belong in their country. A political ad made the case dramatically: First, you see a beautiful mountainous landscape, with cows grazing in lush meadows as alphorn and cowbells offer the familiar sounds of Switzerland. Then, as you gaze at a classic Swiss bell-tower, the serenity is suddenly disturbed by a muezzin giving the call to prayer.[1]

“Countryside for the ban, cities against,” summarized the Zurich Tages-Anzeiger’s November 30 headline. Indeed, the anti-minaret vote was strongest in areas where there were the fewest Muslims—clear evidence that the vote had more to do with issues of identity than to direct interaction with the Muslim population.

Swiss exceptionalism? Not really. “The minaret appears to have become a symbol par excellence of the conflict surrounding Islam, or rather of its visibility in the public eye,” writes Italian scholar Stefano Allievi in a 2009 study of conflicts over mosques throughout Europe. “The minaret, like skyscrapers and the Tower of Babel, is a symbol that rises into the sky, a symbol of power, size and strength.”[2]

Proponents of the ban of minarets in Switzerland repeated constantly they had nothing against religious freedom. According to them, minarets are not needed by Muslims for religious purposes, but rather serve as “religious-political” symbols.

There are only four minarets in Switzerland, and these won’t be torn down as a result of the vote. (There is still a slight difference between the Swiss voting public and the Taliban militants who blew up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.)

The two most recently constructed minarets are small “symbolic” towers sitting on the roofs of former commercial buildings that have been converted into Muslim places of worship. They are anything but spectacular assertions of power—merely attempts to make originally secular buildings look like something religious, plus maybe some nostalgia for the way mosques look in home countries.

Controversies about the erection of these minarets started locally. Soon the organizers got in touch with each other and a handful of politicians, and it was decided that launching a popular initiative to ban minarets would be the most effective way of making a statement about Islam in Switzerland. Unlike a referendum, which permits citizens to vote on a law approved by Parliament and requires 50,000 verified signatures to get on the ballot, a popular initiative seeks to change the Federal Constitution and requires 100,000 signatures.

By July 2008, the ban-the-minaret group had managed to gather 115,000 signatures for a vote on adding to the Constitution the sentence, “The building of minarets is forbidden.” The Federal Government and a majority of the members of Parliament recommended rejecting the initiative, as did the Catholic and Protestant churches and leading evangelical organizations.

Support came mostly from two political parties: the Swiss People’s Party (SPP)—secular, rightist, leaning populist, and currently the largest party in Parliament with 64 out of 246 seats; and the Federal Democratic Union (FDU), a conservative, deeply religious evangelical political party with one seat. The differences between the two in style and discourse were obvious to me at political rallies held by each in my home town on consecutive evenings in October.

The speakers invited by the SPP attempted to present mostly legal arguments, including ones having to do with the compatibility of Islamic law and Western jurisprudence. By contrast, the FDU, which sponsored the ad mentioned above, had invited the (American-born) Israeli anti-Muslim activist Avi Lipkin, who called for a united Christian-Jewish front against Islam (“Muslims do not worship the same God”). The evening included prayers and religious songs, with strong Christian Zionist undertones.

Rarely has a vote in Switzerland provoked such an international outcry—to the anxiety of Swiss diplomats, who started to do everything possible to prevent a repetition of the “Danish cartoons” controversy.

While the ban is definitely offensive, and has evoked some strong comments in Muslim countries as well as from the Organization of the Islamic Conference, it lacks the blasphemous dimension of the infamous cartoons. Nevertheless, it will still take time to fully assess the consequences. As I write this letter on January 16, I have received an email from a correspondent about a Muslim scholar in Mauritania currently attempting to organize an international protest by Muslims against the Swiss vote.

The reaction in Europe was instructive. In several countries, a majority of readers’ comments on the websites of major newspapers seemed to praise the Swiss voters. Many political commentators observed that similar results could be expected if other European countries allowed such votes to take place. “French getting increasingly hostile to mosques,” ran a headline in the French daily Le Figaro December 3.

It is not impossible that the vote will, in the end, have some positive effects in Switzerland and beyond. That would be the case if it led European politicians and opinion leaders to reflect seriously on popular concerns, and Muslim organizations to address them—provided the latter avoid counter-productive victimization discourse. When everybody feels threatened, there is little space for constructive debate.

The reactions around Europe do suggest that the minaret vote is not as peculiar as it seemed at first. But many foreign observers have failed to notice the historical dimension of the vote that helps explain why it happened in Switzerland. For this is not the first time in the modern era that the Swiss have placed legal restrictions on religious minorities.

In the first popular initiative that succeeded in revising the Federal Constitution (most do not pass the test of popular vote), 60 percent of the electorate voted in 1893 to ban the slaughtering of cattle without stunning the animals first. The purpose of the initiative was to prohibit kosher slaughtering (and halal slaughtering as a consequence, but that was not an issue at the time) and reflected a mixture of animal-protection and anti-Jewish sentiment.

The article was removed from the Constitution in 1973, following the introduction of a new article on animal protection, but the ban itself remains in force to this day: Pious Jews and Muslims must import kosher or halal meat if they want it. Attempts to remove the ban—the last less than a decade ago—have been given up after the government saw that the resistance would be too strong.

Until recently, Catholics too experienced legal discrimination. Following the 19th century Kulturkampf—largely a fight between liberal secularism and conservative Catholicism—the 1874 Federal Constitution prohibited Jesuits, the establishment of new monasteries, and the creation of new bishoprics without the permission of the Federal Government.

The bans on Jesuits and new monasteries were not removed from the Constitution until 1973, while the rule on bishoprics stayed in place until 2001. Ironically, the new article on minarets will be inserted at the very place where the paragraph on bishoprics used to be.

Regional regulations are also worth noting. For example, from 1810 to 1874, the Canton of Vaud placed various restrictions on religious bodies other than the established Reformed Church. Catholic churches were allowed to have “neither bell nor bell-tower,” nor any other external sign of their purpose.

History shows that it can take the Swiss a long time to fully accommodate religious minorities—and that the lack of accommodation has not proved to be much of a bar on religious liberty. Despite the discriminatory articles in the Federal Constitution, Catholicism grew and prospered. There is every reason to expect that Islam will do the same, and that Switzerland’s Muslims will become citizens in increasing numbers and gain in social acceptance.

The constitutional ban won’t, in short, be the last word on minarets.

[2] Stefano Allievi, Conflicts over Mosques in Europe: Policy Issues and Trends (NEF Initiative on Religion and Democracy in Europe), London: Alliance Publishing Trust, 2009 (



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