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On the Swiss Minaret Ban

Campaign poster for the ban. It says, “Yes to the minaret ban.” There are more minarets on the poster than in ALL of Switzerland.

The November 2009 Swiss referendum which resulted in a one-of-a-kind constitutional amendment banning the construction of new minarets in Switzerland is an illustrative example of the widespread phenomenon known as Islamophobia. There are currently only 4 minarets in the entire country (one for every 100,000 Swiss Muslims), which are not allowed to broadcast the call to prayer. This amendment is regressive and sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of Europe.

I have heard the argument that this law was put into place democratically, and is therefore just. The problem with that is it equates the two concepts of democracy and justice, which do not always go hand in hand. It was indeed a democratic decision, of course, but that alone cannot make it just. Hitler was voted in democratically as well, and if direct democracy had been used five decades ago in the southern United States, a lot of Jim Crow laws would never have been overthrown. What happens when the majority of a society decides to do something immoral to the minority? This is the so-called “tyranny of the majority.” The concept of minority rights was developed as a defence against this phenomenon.

Another argument says that the Swiss can do whatever they want, since it is their country, and everyone else should just butt out. This is an outdated way of thinking. On the contrary, in the contemporary system, sovereignty is limited up to a point, and it is generally agreed-upon that if human rights are being violated, a state gives up its sovereignty, especially if it willingly subjects itself to the laws of international bodies, such as Switzerland has with the European Council. Is it really necessary to bring up the over-cited example of Nazi Germany, and what happens when we simply let governments do whatever they like within their own borders? The concept of “human security” was created to solve this problem.

And as for the “they’re still allowed to build mosques and free to practice their religion” argument, I think it is unfair, patronizing, and very disrespectful. Maybe if reasonable grounds were given for the ban, such as banning the construction of mosques and everything else in a given area in order to protect historical architecture or preserve the skyline, then it would be reasonable, so long as this rule was applied to everyone indiscriminately. You cannot put limits on one religion alone, or at least you cannot do such a thing and call yourself a liberal democracy.

The fact of the matter is that a mosque is not a McDonald’s. It is not just a building; it is a religious symbol. It is more than simply a building the same way that sometimes a word is more than just a word. You can swear at someone on the street and not break the law, but you cannot call someone a racial slur; it is different. The specific reason that they gave for outlawing the construction of new minarets is because they said minarets symbolize a certain part of Islam that they find undesirable.

Even according to Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf herself this new amendment is almost certainly illegal (at least under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and possibly under the Swiss constitution itself) both because it impinges upon the right of religious expression, and because it is discriminatory.  How ironic, considering that Switzerland currently presides over the European Court of Human Rights.

And even if everything they did was legal, was it really necessary, was it really responsible? And at this very point in history, when international migration is going to be one of the defining features of the 21st century, particularly in Europe, and particularly Muslims? And in Switzerland of all countries? Is their culture so fragile that the country’s 5 percent Muslim minority threaten to obliterate 1000 years of Swiss history? Swiss Muslims are hardly extremists – their politics are notably liberal and democratic, more so in many respects than the rest of the Swiss population, and an estimated 88 percent of them do not even openly worship. Burqas and other conservative head coverings are almost unknown, and there are no mosques calling for Sharia law or any other form of political Islam. Odd then, that 53 percent of people planning to vote yes before the referendum said that their votes represented a clear rejection of Sharia law. The imam of Switzerland’s largest mosque, Youssef Ibram, showed incredible restraint in calling on all Muslims worldwide to respect the amendment. And since many of them come from the Balkans, and have been there for 500 years, are they any less European than the Swiss themselves?

The results of this referendum reflect a deep-seated fear of an imaginary boogyman. It also reflects a prevalent sense of superiority and condescension in a country which did not grant its women suffrage until 1971 (it was granted in Turkey, a 99 percent Muslim country, in 1926, decades before France, Italy, and Belgium). Finally, it is yet another manifestation of the highly troubling resurgence of Islamophobia.

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