This coming Sunday, 29 November, the citizens of the Swiss Confederation vote in referendum whether to ban the building of minarets. The referendum was constitutionally triggered by a successful public petition launched by the Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP), a right-wing party with around 23% of the Swiss popular vote and the largest party in the Nationalrat. However, the ‘no’ vote is being urged by the three other main parties and the leaders of Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups across the country.
A major plank of SVP domestic policy is a belief that the country is experiencing Überfremdung, and become ‘overly foreign’. Quite similar claims are trolleyed out by British tabloids on a regular basis, and it is now the general policy of the BNP, becoming that of Ukip and has some resonance in Tory rhetoric. The SVP’s public platform on Überfremdung won them a surge of votes and a new raft of seats in the Nationalrat in the general election two years ago.
Switzerland’s Muslim population is surprising large, around 4% of the population. Back in 1980, their number was less than 1%. Such rapid demographic change is clearly a shock to a small, conservative country. Some have taken Swiss citizenship and other naturalised. Turkish, Albanian and Bosniak migrants are the largest Muslim ethnic groups, the latter two groups a result of Balkan civil wars during the 90s. Concentrations of the Muslim population are found in the large cities of Zürich, Geneva and Basel, but, unlike the UK, the Muslim population of Switzerland is fairly evenly distributed throughout the country.
One point made by the SVP is that minarets are not required for mosques under Islamic regulations, and that they are a symbol of political victory of Islam rather than a religious requirement. The trick with this approach is that there is a great deal that is true in it. However, one may point out there is nothing requiring the Swiss Reformed Church or Catholic Church to build bell towers on their buildings, but they do, and few Swiss would dispute their right to do so. However, there are architectural difficulties with the addition of a minaret to an extant building which was originally designed for another purpose (e.g. the new minaret on the Brick Lane Mosque, which was built as a Huguenot church, then became a synagogue, before being a mosque).
Naturally, the SVP should not be considered an expert on Islamic law. However, the idea that a minaret is a statement of political victory is more complex. Islam is political, and cannot be otherwise. The rise of Islam can be seen as not only a movement for religious salvation but also a geopolitical battle for Arab independence from Byzantine, Persian and Ethiopian control and encroachment. This creates a difficulty for a modern secularised state to treat religious communities equally whilst ensuring each is reasonably integrated within the ethical framework of the state. Historically, Christians have used their cathedrals and abbeys for propaganda purposes. The Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) regularly have buildings that are oversized to make a point. So, it’s not surprising a Muslim might construe the recycling of a town-centre Methodist chapel as a mosque to be a sign of Islam victoriously sweeping the UK. It’s not, but it’s a view that plays right into the xenophobia of the likes of the BNP and SVP.
Sunday’s vote is a demonstration of democracy in action. Switzerland has long cherished its participatory democracy: a big enough petition can trigger a nationwide referendum on a matter of policy. I think this is a Good Thing, and something that we need to think about introducing here. However, true democracy is never about the dictatorship of the majority, which should be prevented by constitutional safeguards. Swiss cantonal constitutions have specifically stopped such a referendum being held in the individual cantons of Switzerland, requiring the SVP to mount a far more difficult federal campaign. Even if the vote is passed, which seems unlikely given its rounded opposition, it may be in legal conflict with Swiss human-rights law.
Update: The vote is now in, and it’s a surprise. Switzerland has voted 57.5% in favour of the proposition to add to the constitution the sentence “The construction of new minarets in Switzerland is no longer permitted” (Guardian news article). The turnout was 53% (making voter apathy a significant factor in the result), and 22 of the 26 cantons passed the proposition. The Bundesrat have said that they will “respect the decision”, which is as neutral as they can be. There will be legal attempts to overturn the result as a violation of human rights…