Research Owned and Published Globally by the Paper Store, Inc. “Minarets in Switzerland”
As Abderrahman (2006) notes, the primary function of the minaret is to provide a physical location from which the call to prayer can be made. Over the centuries, however, the symbolism of the minaret has evolved so that now, it also represents the cultural and religious elements which unify the Muslim community. Because of this, the construction of mosques with minarets has been seen by Muslim minorities as a sign of their group identity, whilst majority cultures have tended to view the minaret in a more negative light, often as a sign of impending Muslim domination. As Abderrahman comments, it is certainly true that in architectural terms, tower structures have usually represented superiority or dominance: however, this is as true of Christian church steeples as it is of Muslim minarets.
The current controversy over minaret construction in Switzerland has generated a great deal of media attention, and raised several questions about the position of Muslims in Swiss society, and the political factors which underlie anti-minaret protests. Foulkes (2007) states that theoretically Switzerland is secular, with a constitutional right of free religious expression to all. In practice, Muslim mosques are usually “confined to disused warehouses and factories” and Muslims have been “campaigning for decades for more recognition for their faith” (Foulkes, 2007).
The right-wing Swiss People's Party maintains that the minaret is not a religious symbol, but a legal one, and hence “incompatible with Switzerland's legal system” (Foulkes, 2007). A recent article from the BBC (2009) notes that the People's Party has recently issued a controversial poster depicting minarets in the shape of missiles standing on the Swiss flag; the Swiss Federal Commission Against Racism has stated that this is “defamation” of a “peaceful” minority group within the country. Paterson (2009) cites the Swiss Association of Secular Muslims as denouncing the posters for giving the impression that “we are trying to impose Sharia law like Saudi Arabia, but this is not true” (Paterson, 2009). The Association spokesperson goes on to add that Muslims are concerned mainly about “everyday racism, not a lack of minarets” (Paterson, 2009). Amnesty International (2009) states that the People's Party has defended its actions on the grounds that they challenge the “rampant Islamification of Switzerland” (Amnesty, 2009) but in fact, the campaign is intended solely to “discredit and defame” the Muslim minority.
Foulkes notes that in a small town near Berne, plans for a minaret were originally approved, then “put on ice following thousands of objections” (Foulkes, 2007). A local Muslim resident is quoted as saying, somewhat wistfully, that the community only wished to “do our mosque up a bit, with this small minaret and tearoom . . we actually thought it might promote dialogue” (Foulkes, 2007). The resident also asserts that Muslims are being ‘demonized' as terrorists, likening this to the perception that “all Italians are in the Mafia” (Foulkes, 2007).
Bachmann (2009) states that the People's Party has “taken advantage of the country's unique brand of direct democracy to push its populist anti-immigration agenda” (Bachmann, 2009): as noted by the BBC, (2008), citizens can propose new laws provided that they can gather 100,000 petition signatures. Bachmann argues that the right-wing is also riding on the bandwagon of anti-Muslim xenophobia in other parts of Europe, and notes that the People's Party already has a reputation for using “racially tinged” propaganda to gather public support.
Beaumont (2007) points out that Muslims themselves have repeatedly shown themselves willing to enter into dialogue, but the current political campaign is undermining initiatives focused on peaceful integration and the establishment of religious equality. Salah (2009) states that many Muslims fear the minaret ban is only the first stage in much greater oppression of Muslims, and that the right-wing has “never made a secret of its anti-Muslim agenda” (Salah, 2009). It is, however, interesting to note the representatives of majority religious groups in Switzerland have criticized the ban, and maintain that Muslims should be allowed the same religious freedom as they themselves enjoy.
It is evident that the issue has been promulgated through deliberate political activism on the part of the right-wing; propaganda has been widely used to present a highly negative perspective of Muslims, to depict them as threatening, and to present ‘Islamification' as a direct result of minaret construction. However, it would be difficult for Muslims themselves to respond with political activism, since the propaganda campaign has effectively linked such activism with terrorism and with potential Muslim ‘dominance' of the social order. Despite the fact that the People's Party has gained the required number of signatures, it is also apparent that there is strong opposition to the ban from a number of diverse groups, both secular and religious, which would indicate that support for the party is not as widespread as their public statements would seem to suggest.
Part of the problem is that the non-Muslim majority tends to be lacking in information about Muslim religious and cultural life, and is therefore inclined to accept unquestioningly the negative view of minarets which has been put forward by the right-wing. It would be reasonable to suggest, therefore, that any political activism undertaken by the Muslim minority should focus on public education and awareness, especially the fact that Muslims are already victims of racism and disadvantage in society as a whole. It has also been pointed out that Swiss Muslims, whether native or immigrant, are Europeans; purported connections with Muslims in regions known for terrorism, therefore, have been artificially constructed for political purposes in order to take advantage of existing concerns about terrorist activity.
It is also interesting to note that Muslims themselves do not see the minaret issue as one of major importance: as the individual quoted by Foulkes points out, it is only one addition to the construction of a mosque which would make it more congenial for the community, given that mosques are limited to older, disused buildings in the first place. Political activism by Muslims which focuses on the minarets themselves, then, might well be counter-productive, since it might generate a public perception that Muslims do indeed wish to construct physical symbols of ‘dominance' as the right-wing asserts.
The issue illustrates the potential problems of a system where citizens have the ability to influence policy-making to such an extent: on the face of it, this would seem to be a forward-looking type of democratic structure, but as this issue demonstrates, there is great potential for it to be misused by skilled propagandists who generate support for a political agenda through manipulating a lack of awareness on the part of the majority.
Abderrahman CJ (2006) The minaret, symbol of a civilization. Retrieved 23 Nov 2009 from http://www.muslimheritage.com/topics/default.cfm?articleID=647
Bachmann H (2009) Will Switzerland Vote to Ban Minarets on Mosques? Time. Retrieved 23 Nov 2009 from http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1933893,00.html
BBC (2008) Swiss minaret ban gains momentum. Retrieved 23 Nov 2009 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7496038.stm
BBC (2009) Zurich allows anti-minaret poster. Retrieved 23 Nov 2009 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8297826.stm
Beaumont, A (2007) Rightwingers want nationwide vote on minarets. Retrieved 23 Nov 2009 from http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/search/detail/Rightwingers_want_nationwide_vote_on_minarets.html?siteSect=881&sid=7777264
Cengic E (2009) Switzerland debates minarets and Muslims. Retrieved 23 Nov 2009 from http://www.altmuslim.com/a/a/b/3277
Direct Democracy (2009) Switzerland's Political Systems. Retrieved 23 Nov 2009 from http://direct-democracy.geschichte-schweiz.ch/switzerlands-political-systems.html
Foulkes, I (2005) Swiss move to ban minarets. BBC. Retrieved 23 Nov 2009 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/6676271.stm
Islam Online (2009) Amnesty Blasts Swiss Minaret Ban Plan. Retrieved 23 Nov 2009 from http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=Article_C&pagename=Zone-English-News/NWELayout&cid=1245846027293
Paterson T (2009) Swiss tensions rise over 'racist' minaret poster. The Independent. Retrieved 23 Nov 2009 from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/swiss-tensions-rise-over-racist-minaret-poster-1800587.html