Letter From Switzerland:
Not in My Canton
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
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
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
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
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.)
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:
demographics (“they will soon become a majority and take over”);
• radicalism and
• 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
• 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
“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
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
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.