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Swiss vote to ban minarets

By Paul Doolan - posted Monday, 30 November 2009

On Sunday, Swiss citizens, against all expectations, voted to ban the building of minarets, those slender, tall towers that decorate mosques. The result of the referendum, with a clear majority of 57.5 per cent voting to ban the minarets, came as a surprise to even the supporters of the initiative. The result of the referendum was known shortly after polling ended and a spokesperson for the government declared immediately: “the construction of new minarets in Switzerland is no longer permitted.” It now remains to be seen if the result contradicts the Swiss constitution, which protects freedom of religion. The result almost certainly puts Switzerland at loggerheads with the European Court of Human Rights.

First, let me take a risk by claiming that most Swiss citizens have never seen a minaret in Switzerland. Having lived here for over nine years I have never caught sight of a minaret; not surprising when you consider that there are only four in the entire country! So why all the fuss?

The right wing extreme nationalist part, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) sponsored the national referendum calling for a complete ban on minarets, a clear attack on freedom of religious expression, something enshrined in the Swiss constitution.


No member of the Swiss cabinet, which includes members of the SVP, supported the anti-minaret initiative. Indeed the government and all other main political parties spoke out unanimously against the initiative. The leaders of all major religious groups in Switzerland formed a united front condemning the initiative. Government spokespersons and federal human rights organisations admitted that an anti-minaret law would not only be unconstitutional, but it would also contravene international agreements, such as the Convention on Human Rights, of which Switzerland is a signatory.

Right wing parties who live off xenophobia and preach a rabid form of anti-Islam are nothing new in Europe or, for that matter, Australia. Such parties are usually confined to the lunatic fringes of the political spectrum, though occasionally, like in the French presidential elections in 2002 when National Front leader Le Pen came in runner up to Chirac, they do enter the political centre stage. What makes Switzerland unique is that the xenophobic SVP is the biggest party in the country. In the last general election election they gained 30 per cent of parliamentary seats, the greatest victory of any political party since World War I.

The SVP campaigned on an anti-foreigner ticket, blaming the rise in crime on foreigners, blaming the decay in education on foreigners, blaming tax increases on foreigners. They have campaigned vigorously against any attempt to streamline the processing of requests for naturalisation, erecting posters that showed a variety of dark skinned hands reaching out to grab a Swiss passport. They have most infamously depicted foreigners as black sheep being kicked out of Switzerland by white sheep.

For the present campaign the SVP used posters depicting a sinister looking woman dressed in a black burqa standing in front of a Swiss flag that is punctured by a number of minarets; the minarets look awfully like missiles. Some cantons banned the poster, claiming that it is an incitement to racial hatred, but it has been widely circulated and has appeared in newspapers, magazines and on television. The SVP claim that minarets are never mentioned in the Koran and consequently the minaret is not a religious symbol but is a sign of political domination. The time has come, they claim, for the Swiss people to force their government to stop the Islamisation of Swiss society.

Muslims make up about 5 per cent of the Swiss population. Many of these are of European origin and burqas are still an unusual sight. Yet the SVP plays on a fear of what is foreign, and especially what is Islamic. They point to multi-cultural societies, like those of France and Britain, as being failures, plagued by violence.

Switzerland, in the SVP mind, is an oasis of pure traditions and beliefs, besieged on all sides by a foreign world of high taxes, crime and the erosion of conservative values. No one can doubt that the SVP mines a rich seam of xenophobia and Islamaphobia. The result will certainly make the country’s Muslim minority feel very uncomfortable. Taner Hatipoglu, the president of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Zurich stated "We are frightened, and if the atmosphere continues to be like this and if the anti-Islamic hate increases, then the Muslims indeed will not feel safe anymore. This of course is very unpleasant."


Life for the grand majority in this peaceful country is more than comfortable. Indeed few have ever had it so good. Despite the global credit crunch, the real economy in Switzerland remains strong. Taxes, inflation and unemployment are low; all have access to education and health care is excellent. Yet the SVP and their racist campaigns have a strong following. One cannot help but wonder what would happen to the foreign, especially the Muslim, population if a real disaster were to strike.

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About the Author

Paul Doolan teaches history at Zürich International School, Switzerland and lectures in Political Systems at the College for International Citizenship in Birmingham, England.

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