In a referendum held in Switzerland in 2009, Swiss voters amended the Constitution of Switzerland to ban the construction of new minarets, the distinctive spires typically found on top of Islamic mosques throughout the country.[ii] Switzerland is not the only country in Europe to enact public policies targeting the Muslim community. Far-right and anti-Muslim parties and policies are becoming more and more familiar in many countries in Europe. Recently, the governments of both France and Belgium banned the public wearing of burqas, a type of headscarf that covers the face, typically worn by women. Some parties, like the Front National in France, have been around for some time, but others, like Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, are much newer to the political arena. Wilder’s party recently formed part of the governing coalition in the Netherlands, and he has expressed support of the Swiss referendum and seeks to pose a similar initiative to Dutch voters in the near future.[iii]
Unlike the cases of Belgium and France, the Swiss ban on minarets was not passed by the legislature and then signed into law. Rather, the issue was put to a national vote and had to receive a double majority (meaning that successful passage required a majority of the voters nationally, as well as a majority of cantons) to amend the constitution, which protected the law from being subject to judicial review.
Two right-wing parties in the Swiss Legislature, the Swiss People’s Party and the Federal Democratic Union, proposed the referendum to the people of Switzerland, but the proposal did not have the support of the government. Switzerland is a diverse country that has four official languages and supports many, though mostly Christian, religious denominations. There are approximately 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland.[iv] About ninety percent of these Muslims have immigrated to Switzerland since 1980, and most have come from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. After Christianity, Islam is the largest religion in Switzerland.[v] The fact that a country that is so divided by religious denomination, language, and culture could come together on this issue is interesting in and of itself. The lessons learned from the issues that arose in the Swiss case could provide important lessons to scholars and politicians in other countries.
This is a timely topic. There has been a large influx of Muslims in countries that have previously not been native to such believers. In some instances, those countries had colonial ties with the country of origin (France and Algeria, the United Kingdom and Pakistan, for example). This is a situation faced by many European countries. Islam is not new to Europe, and traces its presence on the continent to the eighth century. The total Muslim population of Europe comprises seven percent of the continent’s population (49 million out of 727 million people), or about three percent of the global Muslim population.[vi]
On November 29, 2009, voters throughout Switzerland went to the polls to vote in the national referendum. The question on which Swiss voters were asked to vote was whether or not to amend the Swiss Federal Constitution, Article 72, by adding the sentence, “The construction of minarets is prohibited.”[vii] While opinion polls taken prior to the actual vote suggested that the referendum was headed for a narrow defeat, Swiss voters approved the ban; easily overcoming the double majority that required a majority of voters and a majority of cantons. Overall, 57.5% of voters supported the ban, as well as twenty-two of twenty-six cantons.[viii] The turnout was 53.4%.[ix]
The history behind the vote stretches back to 2003, when a Turkish cultural association in Wangen, located in the canton of Solothurn, obtained permission to house a community center with prayer rooms in an industrial area. In 2005, the group sought permission to construct a symbolic minaret on top of the building. The request was eventually granted, but there was one caveat; the minaret could not be used to call for prayer A Cantonal Court rejected an appeal, saying that the original permit for the building allowed for prayer rooms and that “a church was a church with or without a tower, a minaret would not alter the purpose of the existing building.”[x] When the minaret was constructed following this ruling, it was only the fourth minaret in all of Switzerland, with three or four others in the planning stages. The minarets that had already been constructed are not covered by the ban and will remain in place. In addition, there are about 200 additional mosques or prayer spaces in Switzerland.[xi]
Following the Cantonal Court’s decision, two right-wing parties in the Swiss Federal Legislature took up the issue. In 2007, the Swiss People’s Party, the largest party in the legislature, and the Federal Democratic Union, a small Christian party, unsuccessfully tried to ban the construction of mosques legislatively.[xii] Despite their legislative defeat, the two parties continued to take up the issue, and decided to put the question of whether or not minarets should be allowed to the citizens of Switzerland, which would need the approval of the Federal Council. The Federal Council determined that the initiative did not violate norms of international law and deemed it valid, though it recommended rejecting the initiative. The National Assembly, by a vote of 129 to 50, recommended that voters reject the initiative.[xiii] The Catholic Church and the Protestant Church also recommended that voters reject the ban.[xiv]
The Swiss People’s Party and the Federal Democratic Union argued that the minaret was a symbol of the religious and political dimensions of Islam, and that it was only a minor part of the free practice of Islam. They further argued that by accepting minarets now, Switzerland would be forced to allow the call to prayer later, and that the minaret, as a symbol of Islamic power, would express an undemocratic claim of sole representation in Switzerland.[xv] Opponents of the ban argued that the ban would not only go against the Swiss federal constitution, but also against international law and treaties to which the Swiss are party. They also argued that the ban would infringe upon the free exercise of religion and on minority rights, that it was discriminatory, and that it would threaten the religious peace of Switzerland.[xvi] Additionally, the government was worried that Switzerland’s image and standing abroad would be harmed if the ban were approved.[xvii] The Swiss Foreign Minister was worried that the ban would leave Switzerland open to terrorism, and the Swiss business community was concerned that the ban would lead to boycotts against Swiss products.[xviii]
The campaign engendered heated rhetoric on both sides, domestically and internationally. The Minister of Justice at the time was accused of supporting female genital mutilation because she voiced opposition to the ban, and the United States’ Department of State, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference all came out strongly against the ban.[xix] Right-wing and populist leaders in other countries in Europe, such as Marine Le Pen of the Front National in France, Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party, and Pia Kjaersgaard, head of the Danish People’s Party, came out in support of the ban, and even suggested that similar initiatives would be put to a vote in their respective countries.[xx] Muammar Gaddafi of Libya called for a jihad against Switzerland in the wake of the initiative.[xxi]
During the campaign, the proponents of the ban released provocative and controversial posters. Several of the posters contained images of a shadowy woman in Muslim garb, or showed a minaret shaped like a missile piercing through the flag of Switzerland. In some regions these posters were censured, which in turn led to the distribution of new posters seeking to garner support due to the government attempts to restrict the exercise of free speech.[xxii]
Voters in Switzerland held a multitude of views towards the initiative and what constituted the real meaning of the ban. A Gallup-Europe poll conducted in Switzerland in December 2009 (immediately following the referendum), of 1,000 randomly selected citizens aged fifteen or older, showed that the Swiss were in agreement on many issues, but held a wide range of views on others. According to one open-ended question asked in the poll, thirty-five percent of respondents said that the building or construction of minarets was the real issue behind the initiative. Another fourteen percent said that a fear of Islam or of immigrants was the real issue, while eleven percent said that the Islamicization of Switzerland was the main reason.[xxiii] An overwhelming majority of Swiss believed that Muslims could be good Swiss patriots, with eighty-five percent agreeing, and only eleven percent disagreeing. One hundred percent of those who voted against the ban in the poll believed that Muslims could be good Swiss patriots. Seventy-five percent of Swiss in the poll said that religious freedom was an important part of Swiss identity, with only eight percent disagreeing. Sixty-seven percent of those who said that religious freedom was important voted for the ban. The poll also showed that the Swiss largely do not agree with the notion that there is an irresolvable contradiction between liberal democracy and Islam (forty-eight percent), while thirty-eight percent would agree that there is an irresolvable contradiction. The respondents were split on whether or not the ban hurt Switzerland’s ability to uphold the values of liberal democracy. Thirty-nine percent said that it would hurt Switzerland’s ability, twenty percent said that it furthered Switzerland’s ability, and thirty-two replied that it had no impact.[xxiv]
Poll respondents were equally divided on the impact of the ban on Switzerland’s international image and standing. Thirty-eight percent said that the ban would not harm their global reputation, thirty-four percent said that it harmed Switzerland’s image, and twenty-nine percent did not think that it would have any effect. Finally, the poll found that the Swiss did not feel that Muslims in the country should feel discriminated against. Nearly two-thirds (sixty-seven percent) of respondents said that the Swiss Muslim community had not been discriminated against, while only thirty percent believed otherwise. Among Christians surveyed in the poll, seventy percent felt that there was no discrimination, while this number was reversed for Muslims in the poll, seventy percent of whom felt that there was reason to feel discriminated against.[xxv]
As previously mentioned, politicians in several other European countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark, have expressed support for a similar type of ban in their respective countries. This is a timely topic and the Swiss experience will help to shed light on the political battles that were waged in Switzerland and might be waged again in the future.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8385069.stm (last updated Nov. 29, 2009).
http://www.gallup-europe.be/switzerland/minarets.htm (last visited Oct. 25, 2010),