The proposal grew out of the campaign of a number of conservative groups in the normally sleepy Swiss country town of Langenthal against an application to build a minaret next to a mosque.
The proposal was launched by members of the rightwing Swiss People's Party and the ultra conservative Federal Democratic Union. The ultra-conservative Swiss People's Party (SVP) has displayed in the past a flair for the dramatic at the expense of migrants who happen to have the wrong colour or to profess the wrong religion. In 2007 it got its largest ever share of the vote after a sleek anti-foreigner campaign that was explicitly racist. Ulrich Schüler, an SVP parliamentarian and leading member of the anti-minaret movement, trying to rationalize his party's position has argued that the minarets are political rather than religious.
"They are symbols of a desire for power, of an Islam which wants to establish a legal and social order fundamentally contrary to the liberties guaranteed in our constitution," he said. Others called minarets 'an ideological intrusion'.
I would, strangely, find myself in agreement with Mr Schüler as to the political significance of a minaret, but I would also hasten to add that our agreement is confined to this point alone. Without disputing their religious significance to those who consider minarets an indispensable part of their religious life, I would also point out that precisely as Mr Schüler points out, for most Swiss Muslims, the aspiration to erect mosques (which the politically adept SVP decided not to target for the time being) and minarets also carries with it a significantly political dimension. It does not, of course, constitute the prelude of the islamization of Swiss society, or the start of a campaign to impose the shari'a as they would all too readily argue. It is part of a more modest aspiration of many Swiss Muslims to belong. To feel accepted, to live in cities they can call their own, that contain visible signs of their presence. To feel accepted without relinquishing their sense of identity as Swiss-Muslim.
The debate of the past few months has rendered the ideological fig-leaf of those opposing the erection of Islamic buildings redundant. It is clear that not wanting minarets 'contaminating' the Swiss landscape is not a matter of aesthetics or, at least, aesthetics alone! It is the difficulty the SVP has in recognising that all citizens' identities contain all sorts of hyphens that open the door to some degree of difference within the framework of Swissness that defines today Swiss politics. It is their difficulty to visualize a Switzerland that is not monolithic, homogeneous, that is not terrified of any hint of difference in its idyllic Heimat-like construct of contemporary Switzerland that made it possible for such an absurd political 'debate' to culminate in a referendum.
It is the product of the rule of fear and misunderstanding which the SVP and its allies feed of. Minarets are indeed political in another way too. They demonstrate the will of a society to accept its inherent diversity and to extend citizenship rights to all. But the SVP is hardly the political actor to put this message across!Declaration of the C1 World Dialogue CoChairs:
The Grand Mufti of Egypt Dr.Ali Gomaa
The Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres,
Deplore Passing of Swiss Anti Minaret Initiative
The Bishop of London commented: “This vote shows what happens when practical steps are not taken to address private fears and to bring communities together. We must not allow stereotypes to drive us apart. It is important that the identity of Muslims not be allowed to be hijacked by extremists. We must remember too the need for people everywhere to be able to enjoy freedom of religion and the freedom to practice their faith and we need to address this globally so that we all enjoy equal freedom of religion everywhere.”
Released in Basle, November 29, 2009
The C1 One World Dialogue deeply deplores the passing of this initiative proposed by theSVP (Swiss People’s Party).
The C-1 World Dialogue has made very clear its concern about this issue (see the Georgetown statement of 9th October 2009). We have sought to offer every possible assistance in helping to avoid the present outcome. We have engaged with as many of those who have been concerned about this as possible here in Switzerland as well as with others who wish to help, ranging from President Erdogan of Turkey through to Riz Khan and Al Jazeera and the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya, Nakhle El Hage.
We remain committed to offering such help in the future and express the hope that, even yet, good may come from this unhappy set back. This outcome should serve to alert us to the reality of unaddressed fears and unspoken anxieties in Europe which the normal political processes have overlooked or insufficiently addressed. We urge that the challenge of building true communities that can nonetheless integrate diversity in a harmonious manner should be a high priority everywhere and we offer our full support in the future for this work.
Switzerland is a country that has for centuries embodied the capacity to bring people of diverse cultural backgrounds together – as its four official languages demonstrate. Moreover, Article 15 of the Swiss Federal Constitution explicitly states that, “The freedom of religion and philosophy is guaranteed. All persons have the right to choose their religion
or philosophical convictions freely, and to profess them alone or in community with others. All persons have the right to join or to belong to a religious community, and to follow religious teachings. No person shall be forced to join or belong to a religious community, to participate in a religious act, or to follow religious teachings.” This Constitutional guarantee has not been changed and everyone needs to remember this fact.
We stand at this time with the Swiss Council of Religions (which includes Muslim representatives) in regretting this present outcome, while also committing ourselves to ensuring that the right to free practice of religious beliefs continues to be maintained here in Switzerland, as it long has been, and as it should be world wide. This outcome should not be misused for other political purposes but should serve instead as a call to commit to building cooperation and harmony between our different communities and religions with renewed vigor.