On November 29, 57 percent of Swiss voters supported a referendum to ban the building of minarets in Switzerland. Minarets are tall, cylindrical spires usually attached to Islamic mosques. A muezzin typically calls faithful Muslims to prayer five times each day from the top of the minaret. The minaret is also a powerful symbol of Islam.
The proposal was put forward by the Swiss People's Party, the largest–and most conservative–party in the Swiss parliament, which claims that minarets are a sign of encroaching “Islamicization.” The ban, which is opposed by the government, does not end the right of Muslims to worship, nor does it block construction of new mosques.
Because the ban received a majority of votes and passed in a majority of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, it will be added to the Constitution. A sentence will be added to the article defining church-state relations, stating: "the building of minarets in Switzerland is forbidden."
According to the New York Times, of 150 mosques in Switzerland, only four have minarets, and none of them are used for the traditional calls to prayer. An estimated 400,000 Muslims comprise only 6 percent of the total Swiss population of 7.5 million people. By most accounts, Swiss Muslims, mostly of Turkish and Balkan heritage, have been living peacefully in Switzerland for decades, even centuries, and generally do not adhere to the dress and conduct codes associated with Muslim countries.
The Swiss government quickly announced that the minaret ban was “not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture.” Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, the justice minister, said the result “reflects fears among the population of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies.”
The ban certainly runs contrary to Switzerland’s reputation as a bastion of freedom and tolerance.
“That Switzerland, a country with a long tradition of religious tolerance and the provision of refuge to the persecuted, should have accepted such a grotesquely discriminatory proposal is shocking,” declared David Diaz-Jogeix, Amnesty International’s deputy program director for Europe and Central Asia.
The Vatican denounced the ban as an infringement of modern notions of religious freedom. Catholic bishops in Switzerland issued a statement of regret, regretting the ban, accusing the SVP of exaggerating any threat posed by Muslims, and also warned that the ban "will not help Christians oppressed and persecuted in Islamic countries."
Spokesmen across Europe criticized the ban as discriminatory and antithetical to a European culture of human rights.
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"Scandalous," said the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner.
"It's a sad day for freedom of religion," added Mohammed Shafiq, the chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, a British youth organization. "A constitutional amendment that's targeted towards one religious community is discriminatory and abhorrent."
Babacar Ba, a senior official of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, warned of an "upsurge in Islamophobia" in Europe.
But it was not difficult to find supporters of the vote. The minaret "is a political symbol against integration; a symbol more of segregation, and first of all, a symbol to try to introduce Sharia law parallel to Swiss rights," said Ulrich Schluer, a lawmaker from the conservative SVP.
"When you look at the European Union, where are there extremists?" asked Schluer. "In the suburbs and ghetto banlieues of Paris and London. . . . We don't want that in Switzerland."
Other conservative leaders in Europe likewise applauded the Swiss vote. "The flag of a courageous Switzerland which wants to remain Christian is flying over a near-Islamised Europe," said Mario Borghezio, an MEP from Italy's anti-immigrant Northern League.
The ban against minarets in Switzerland is part of a rising xenophobia spreading across Europe associated with an increasing Muslim population and the fallout from 9/11. Similar anxieties about Muslims have spread across Europe in recent years, leading to remarkable legal developments. The French have banned the burqa, the full-length body covering worn by some Muslim women. Some German states have imposed bans on headscarves for Muslim women teaching in public schools. Mosques and minaret construction projects in Sweden, France, Austria, Germany, and Italy have been the subject of public marches and protests.
But the Swiss ban of minarets is arguably Europe’s most dramatic move yet. It is not difficult to understand these reactions, but are they appropriate in an increasingly multicultural world? Muslim extremists and jihadists have done done nothing to threaten life in Switzerland, so why punish peace-loving Muslims who live there? How would Swiss Christians react to having their church spires banned?
The Swiss ban on minarets will only exacerbate tensions between Christians and Muslims. It interrupts the progress for religious rights that human civilization has made over the last several hundred years.
The idea that all human beings are entitled to religious liberty has arisen primarily as a byproduct of democracy and the belief in the dignity of the human person. For most of history, political orders tended to be monarchical, even totalitarian, believing a common religion to be the foundation of a stable society. Enforcement of religious uniformity became commonplace. World history reveals an unmitigated level of religious intolerance, persecution, inquisitions, and religious wars.
The modern era’s response to this has been the democratic principle of religious liberty by which governments declare their neutrality on religious questions, leaving each individual citizen to adopt his or her own religious beliefs, and each religious group to conduct its own worship activities, without fear of government reprisal. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, not to mention countless other international treaties, written in the aftermath of the unspeakable horrors of World War II, provide standards, including religious rights, by which the peoples of the world may learn to live in peace and cooperation.
The Swiss vote might eventually be overturned by Swiss courts or the European Court of Human Rights, but the more effective way to deal with the prejudice that results in such bans is increased education and more dialogue among people of different faiths that leads to mutual respect and acceptance. Otherwise, the growing tensions in Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe are certain to elevate as Muslim populations increase.
Religious prejudice and intolerance will persist in Europe and across the world until we gain deeper understandings of each other and strive to live together in peace in spite of our differences.