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Swiss Minaret Ban

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The Prophet's Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, has several minarets.

The Prophet's Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, has several minarets.

Muhannad Fala'ah / Getty Images

Introduction:

There are an estimated 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland, making up between 4-6% of the population. The Swiss are traditionally known for being tolerant and peaceful people. In some European countries, growing numbers of Muslim immigrants and converts have prompted an anti-immigration and anti-Islam stance among some politicians and citizens. Are the Swiss now joining their ranks?

Caught up in this issue is the minaret, a simple element of mosque architecture. Why has minaret construction become symbolic of the perceived "threat" of Islam in Europe?

Basics - What Is A Minaret:

A minaret is a basic element of mosque architecture. It is a slim tower, much like a church steeple, which rises from a mosque. Minarets vary in height, style, and number.

Traditionally, the adhan (Islamic call to prayer) was called from the top of the minaret. In modern times, microphones and sound systems are often used to project the adhan in places where it is called publicly. Even in places where the adhan is not called out loud, the minaret remains an identifying feature of a mosque.

Background - What Prompted The Vote:

As recently as the 1970s, there were fewer than 20,000 Muslims living in Switzerland. Due to immigration from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, as well as conversion among Swiss nationals, the population of Muslims has grown to about 400,000.

Over the past decade, local unrest about immigration issues has been growing in Switzerland. The Muslim community serves as an easy target. Among the more than hundred mosques which currently exist in the country, there are merely four minarets. A construction application for a small village mosque with a five-meter minaret prompted the current debate.

Major Players - Who Is Behind the Vote:

Right-wing political parties in Switzerland have been gaining in popularity based on a platform of immigration reform. The Swiss People's Party (SPP) is now the largest political party in the country. Together with politicians from the Federal Democratic Union, they launched a campaign to push a constitutional ban on minarets.

According to Swiss law, a federal popular initiative can place such decisions before voters in a referendum. In 2007, the group began collecting the required petition signatures to put the minaret ban to a public vote. They succeeded, and the referendum was voted upon on November 29, 2009.

Arguments For - Why a Minaret Ban:

According to ban supporters, the minaret is symbolic of "political Islam" and a desire to expand Muslim power in Europe. They see "Islamism" as a foreign ideology and legal system which has no place in a European secular democracy.

A controversial advertising campaign to promote the law featured images of minarets shaped like black missiles. The clear message was that the growing Muslim population may be violent, power-hungry terrorists who want to implement Islamic law in Europe.

Arguments Against - Why Not a Minaret Ban:

Those who have argued against the law base their argument on several points:
  • Freedom of religion is fundamental to Swiss law and European human rights treaties.
  • A minaret is a simple and common architectural feature of a mosque, and is neither a safety risk nor a public nuisance.
  • A minaret carries no political symbolism or significance.
  • Advertising campaigns to promote the law were racist.
  • The law may alienate Swiss Muslims, who are largely of European origin and are known to be moderate.
  • The international outcry against the law may have a negative influence on the Swiss economy and foreign relations.

Update - What's Happening Now:

Swiss government officials and business leaders recommended a "no" vote on this referendum, and most people didn't expect it to pass. Nevertheless, on 29 November 2009 it did pass with 57 percent of the vote and 22 out of 26 cantons (provinces).

In response, government and religious leaders worldwide have denounced the ban. The UN Human Rights Committee has said that it may be a violation of international law. Swiss opposition groups have vowed to challenge the law in the European Court of Human Rights.

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