Posted on November 5, 2009

Swiss Referendum Stirs a Debate About Islam

Deborah Ball and Anita Greil, Wall Street Journal, November 6, 2009

An emotional debate over the role of Islam in Switzerland is heating up as a referendum approaches that would ban the construction of minarets on mosques.

On Nov. 29, the Swiss will vote on a referendum to ban the construction of minarets, an initiative promoted by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, who argue that a minaret is a symbol of Islamic intolerance. {snip}

The debate comes in a country that has prided itself on integrating its large immigrant population and that largely avoided the clashes over the rights of Muslim minorities seen elsewhere in Europe. Business and political interests are especially worried about a possible backlash from the Muslim world.

For example, Swiss watchmaker Swatch Group Ltd. is worried that its relations with Muslim countries–an important destination for its goods–will be imperiled if the initiative passes. “The brand ‘Swiss’ must continue to represent values such as openness, pluralism and freedom of religion,” said Hanspeter Rentsch, member of the executive group management board at Swatch. “Under no circumstances must it be brought in connection with hatred, animosity towards foreigners and narrow-mindedness.”

The Swiss People’s Party gathered twice the required signatures needed to call a vote. Its campaign used posters depicting a woman in a burqa in front of a row of minarets shaped like missiles. Some cities, such as Basel, have banned the posters, while Zurich and others have allowed them in the name of free speech.

The party, the country’s largest political group and a fierce critic of immigration, drew international criticism for a campaign poster two years ago showing a white sheep kicking a black sheep out of Switzerland.

A national poll by state-owned media group SRG shows that 53% of voters oppose the ban and 34% support it. Muslim leaders, who have taken a low-key approach to the controversy, are nonetheless worried.


Some say that even defeating the referendum won’t dissolve the tension. “It won’t end with this,” says Hisham Maizer, head of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland. “The debate about Islam in Switzerland has just begun.”

The controversy is unusual in a country where 20% of the population are counted as foreigners, and which has taken a pragmatic approach to integrating its immigrants. About 400,000, or roughly 5%, of Swiss residents are Muslim. Most are of Turkish or Balkan origin, with a small minority from the Arab world.

According to a government poll in 2000, less than 15% of Swiss Muslims actively practice their faith. Indeed, only four of the roughly 150 mosques in Switzerland have minarets. Laws against sound pollution forbid mosques from using minarets to hold speakers for the call to prayer.


The Swiss government has come out strongly against the minaret referendum, fearful of a radicalization of Muslims at home and reprisals against Swiss interests abroad. A yes vote “could make Switzerland a target for Islamic terrorism,” said Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.

Swiss diplomats are working to reassure their counterparts in Muslim countries that Bern opposes the initiative. A working group is also monitoring the media in those countries for signs of backlash. So far, Bern hasn’t detected a rise in anti-Swiss sentiment, according to one official.

Swiss businesses, many with large interests in Muslim countries, have come out against the referendum, for fear of a boycott like one that hit Denmark in 2005 following a controversy over published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Nestlé SA, which has about 50 factories and 5.5 billion Swiss francs ($5.36 billion) of sales in Muslim countries, has declined to take a stance on the referendum.

According to Economiesuisse, Switzerland’s main business association, about 7%, or 14.5 billion francs, of Switzerland’s total exports go to predominantly Muslim countries. In 2008, those exports rose 14%, compared with a rise in overall exports of 4.3%. Switzerland is still bruised from a spat with Libya that led that country to cut off oil exports to Switzerland for a time.