Swiss fear ‘symbols of Islamic power’

Langenthal, a provincial town in the Swiss canton of Bern, is at the center of a fierce right-wing campaign to prevent the construction of a minaret. Home to an estimated 14,547 residents and 11 churches, Langenthal’s population is also eight percent Muslim—mostly of Albanian, Bosnian and Turkish background. "Anti-minaret" campaigners are trying to force the capital Bern to rescind its approval for the addition of a minaret and dome to an existing Muslim house of worship, and are also trying to amend Switzerland’s constitution.
Switzerland mosques
A fictional image of a minaret against the backdrop of the Swiss Alps

BEIRUT, August 24, 2009 (MENASSAT)-- In July 2008, the anti-minaret committee submitted some 115,000 citizens’ signatures proposing to “append the following sentence to Article 72 of the Swiss federal constitution: ‘The construction of minarets is forbidden.’”
Switzerland prides itself on having the form of government closest to a “direct democracy” in the world. Under Swiss law, any citizen can suggest an amendment to the constitution and push for a referendum if they gather enough signatures (over 100,000) within eighteen months.

Switzerland, not "Paris or Berlin"

There are three mosques with minarets in Switzerland—all of them in the big cities such as Zurich, Geneva and Winterthur. In 2007, the addition of a minaret to the Turkish cultural center in Wangen bei Olten, spawned protests and subsequently the birth of the “anti-minaret” campaign, which had collected signatures from local residents to prevent its construction. Legal battles ensued and reached the Bundesgericht (Switzerland’s highest court), which finally permitted the minaret’s construction.

Langenthal was the next battleground for the anti-minaret campaigners. In 2006, the city gave permission for the construction of a dome and minaret, on the condition that it wouldn't be used for call-to-prayer. After numerous complaints were filed with the canton’s capital, Bern overrode Langenthal’s decision to permit the construction, citing zoning regulations—and the absence of enough parking lots.

According to the Independent, “Switzerland's ‘stop minaret’ movement is backed by the influential ultra-conservative Swiss People's Party, (SVP) which was re-elected in 2007 with its largest ever share of the vote after mounting an anti-foreigner campaign that was denounced by the United Nations as racist. “

"There may be different laws governing this kind of thing in certain parts of Paris or Berlin, but we don't want them in Switzerland," Mr Schüler, a parliamentarian for the SVP and one of the leaders of the campaign, said.

Noisy worshippers

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and the Federal Democratic Union (EDU) helped collect signatures for the initiative and formed the committee. Initially, they sought to also include in the text for the constitutional amendment that “forced marriages, acts of personal vengeance, the non-recognition of the state’s monopoly on force, as well as gender-discriminatory school attendance would be prohibited.”

The anti-minaret campaign argues that “the property where the minaret is to be constructed, which is in a residential area, is not intended for residential use and also has no functional purpose for the needs of the area’s inhabitants, because most of the visitors to the house of worship live outside the area. In addition, the operation of the house of worship would compromise the quiet living of the surrounding properties.”

Webpage of the anti-minaret initiative

The campaigners’ objection to minarets is not purely aesthetic; nor is it only about maintaining the residential character of sleepy Langenthal. According to their website, the campaign  and its supporters see something far more sinister behind the planned 6 meter minaret: “As a structure, the minaret has no religious character. It is not even mentioned in the Koran, nor in any other Islamic religious texts.  Rather, the minaret is far more a symbol of the religious-political claim to power and dominance, which threatens—in the name of alleged freedom of religion—the constitutional rights of others. This is why the claim contradicts the constitution and rule of law in Switzerland.

Whomever places religion above the state—as is the case with Islam—and gives a higher meaning to religious instructions than to the democratically-established rule of law, will undoubtedly come into conflict with the Swiss constitution. This conflict is unavoidable. The minaret is the external symbol of this religious-political claim to power, which calls into question basic constitutional rights. The initiative that demands a ban on minarets will ensure that the unfettered validity of the constitutionally-established social order and rule of law is guaranteed in Switzerland.”

"Language guidelines"

In response to the minaret controversy, the security committee of the Swiss federal council in 2007 ordered Swiss intelligence services to investigate reactions to the anti-minaret campaign in Islamist circles. In 2007, Swiss foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, a member of the security committee, warned that “such an initiative threatens Swiss interests and the security of Swiss citizens.” The federal council subsequently adopted a set of “language guidelines” for government spokesmen and diplomats. The guidelines instruct public officials to explain that a ban on minarets does not yet exist, and that—given the committee’s efforts to force a nation-wide referendum—this would not take place before 2010.

In Bern, an exhibition entitled "Dome – Temple – Minaret" is currently on display, which deals with “new sacred buildings in Switzerland” constructed after 1945. An article in the liberal daily “Der Bund” recently highlighted both the novel obsession with minarets, and the absence of any objections to other houses of worships.  “Mosques with minarets were constructed in 1963 in Geneva and in 1968 in Zurich, and were [then] accepted as a sign of cosmopolitanism. There were no objections to the 15-meter high tower for a shiva temple erected in Trimbach, in the canton of Solothurn. Not even against the Buddhist temple in Gretzenbach that passengers between Bern and Zurich can see from the window of the train. But the 6-meter minaret for the Turkish cultural center in Wangen bei Olten caused a great deal of consternation. The decision went all the way to the highest court in 2007. Now the minaret stands. A Sikh temple [constructed around the same time] in Langenthal did not arouse any public ire.”

European landscapes

Switzerland is not alone in trying to prevent Islamic symbols or the integration of Islamic architecture into the landscape. Last month, the Italian interior minister  announced that he wanted to shut down a mosque in Milan, because after Friday prayers, worshippers “block the streets and irritate the inhabitants.” In February, the Austrian state of Kaernten altered its zoning laws specifically to prevent any future construction of minarets, under the pretext that they would destroy “the harmony of the townscape.”

Even France, home to Europe’s biggest Muslim population, has only a few mosques that can be visually recognized as such from the outside. Most Muslim houses of worship are housed in ordinary buildings, without the distinguishing architecture common of other houses of worship. In a study entitled, Conflicts over Islamic Symbols in European Public Space, Stefano Allievi writes, “In France, from an estimated 1,000 Muslim cultural center, there are only 8 mosques that are architectonically conceived as such, as if Islam has to render itself invisible or at least as non-visible as possible, to be accepted in French public space.”

On November 29th, Swiss voters will go to the polls to decide not only on the future of minarets in the "neutral" Alpine state, but also if the country's largest religious minority will be singled out for a constitutionally-enshrined ban on the architectural form of its houses of worship.