BY PHILIPP FISCHER
Switzerland’s vote to ban the construction of minarets, the prayer towers of mosques, was greeted with a mixture of astonishment and disbelief around the world. The impact of this decision was certainly magnified by the fact that – coincidentally – it occurred on the last day of the “Festival of Sacrifice” (Eid al-Adha), a holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide. Some commentators have already suggested that the vote will spark a backlash similar to the one triggered in 2005 by the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons representing the Prophet Muhammad. This makes it critical to shed light on the legal and political process that led to this vote.
Switzerland takes pride in a century-old political system which allows its citizens to have the last word on almost any important issue regarding their country. The Swiss Constitution grants each citizen the right of initiative, i.e. the right to propose a constitutional amendment which, if signed by at least 100,000 citizens, is then submitted to a popular vote.
In July 2008, a minor conservative political party announced that it had collected the required number of signatures to force a vote on the prohibition of the construction of minarets in Switzerland. This proposal was immediately opposed by three of the four main political parties that share power within the Swiss government. The fourth main political force endorsed the initiative, but only half-heartedly. At the outset of the political campaign, a number of Swiss cities, citing concerns under Swiss anti-racism laws, announced their intent to ban from their streets the posters the proponents of the initiative printed, showing missile-shaped minarets piercing a Swiss flag. This proved to be a costly strategic mistake by the initiative’s adversaries. From then on, the public debate focused essentially on the limits of freedom of expression and touched only very superficially on the significance of this initiative for the interfaith relationship in Swiss society. All the polls published in the weeks preceding the vote suggested that the initiative would be solidly rejected. Sunday’s result therefore came as a colossal surprise for the country and for the entire world.
Against this background, it is worth noting that the initiative does not ban the construction of mosques or the exercise of the Muslim religion as such, but only the construction of minarets on mosques. The four minarets that currently exist in Switzerland are not affected by the vote, nor are the approximately 400,000 Muslims living in Switzerland restricted in any way from practicing their faith in their places of worship. That being said, this formalistic approach to the scope of the initiative fails to reflect the symbolic power of the message sent by a majority of Swiss voters this Sunday.
Some commentators have argued that this initiative might be contrary to the liberty of religion, as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Switzerland has been a party since 1974. But the practical consequences deriving from the conflict between Switzerland’s duties under an international treaty and a constitutional amendment ratified by an overwhelming majority of Swiss voters are unclear, and are currently the subject of a heated debate among Swiss law professors and politicians.
More importantly, this vote cannot and should not be seen as the ultimate proof of a predominantly anti-Muslim sentiment within the Swiss population, despite the fact that this decision casts a shadow on Switzerland’s image as an open and tolerant country. This vote rather reflects a sentiment of fear and uncertainty that recently grasped this country. In the past months, some of the fundamental pillars that defined the Swiss society over the past century were shaken to the core, particularly following the disclosure of the dire financial situation of its flagship banks and the relentless attacks on the Swiss banking secrecy. Furthermore, an on-going diplomatic row with Libya following an incident involving the Libyan leader’s son in Geneva may also have been on voters’ minds when they cast their ballots.
But it is also worth pointing out that , until recently, the Swiss Constitution contained a provision whereby the creation of a new Catholic diocese was subject to the approval of the federal government. Given the Protestant alignment of the Swiss government at the time this provision was introduced in 1874, the requirement for a prior approval was tantamount to an outright ban. In 2001, Swiss voters decided, again in a popular vote, to remove this discriminatory legal provision. Sadly, the blank line left in the text of the Constitution by the 2001 vote will now be filled with the new provision banning the construction of minarets.
Sunday’s vote will probably be seen around the world as a step backwards on the road towards the peaceful cohabitation of religions. This notwithstanding, this decision – which was taken democratically in a sovereign country and therefore ought to be respected – must be considered as a unique opportunity to initiate a profound dialogue with the Muslim communities, both in Switzerland and elsewhere in the Western world, in order to define the necessary preconditions of a peaceful and harmonious coexistence.
Philipp Fischer LL.M. ’09 is a Swiss national who currently works in New York.