Neutrality be Damned- Switzerland’s Ban on Minarets Seen as a Violation of Freedom of Religion

Geneva, Switzerland- In a referendum seen across Europe and much of the world as a strong rebuke of the perceived Islamization of the continent, Swiss voters on Sunday passed a bill that bans the construction of new minarets for mosques inside Switzerland. The bill championed by the nationalist leaning Swiss People’s Party was approved by 57 percent of the vote. The conservative leaning Swiss People’s Party had labeled the minarets as symbols of rising Muslim political power that somehow could have transformed the Alpine country into an Islamic nation. This is indeed very peculiar since in a country of 7.5 million people, Muslims only make up roughly 6 percent of the population.

The majority of Muslims in Switzerland are refugees from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s and according to governmental figures, only 1 in 10 actively practices Islam.  Nonetheless, anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Muslim sentiments have been growing in Switzerland and in other European countries since after 9-11 and there have been other efforts across the continent to stifle Islamic populations for example with the banning of headscarves in public universities and institutions in France and other similar measures on many ballots in Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Greece and other countries. But none of these countries went as far as Switzerland which is now restricting the unique architecture of mosques by banning the minarets. This is akin to churches not being allowed to display the cross on their roofs as the minaret is perhaps the most prominent symbol of a mosque and an important part of its architecture designed to signify a house of worship from other buildings in an area.

In ancient times the function of a minaret was for the imam or religious leader to climb to the highest vantage point of the mosque and call out the faithful to pray. This gave the imam a good location to maximize the call to prayer five times a day so as many Muslims nearby as possible could hear the call and come pray. Over time, the minaret became to symbolize mosques in general as the unique tower came to be a symbol of mosques around the world and a part of the distinctive Muslim architecture along with domes and arches. In modern times, the Imams now utilize microphones and speakers to ensure that the maximum number of adherents can hear the call to prayer and this need for the minaret became less about the call to prayer and more about the aesthetic look of mosques that Muslims had come to identify with over the centuries.

Switzerland currently has four mosques with standing minarets, which will not be affected by the ban. These mosques do not broadcast the daily call to prayer outside their own buildings. The sponsors of the referendum had provoked complaints of bias and bigotry by some local officials, human rights organizations and Muslim groups across Europe and around the world. Campaign posters supporting the ban on minarets showed minarets rising like missiles from the Swiss flag next to a veiled Muslim woman with menacing eyes, according to many who see the poster. Backers of the ban have stated that the growing Muslim population was a strain on the country and have implied that Muslims do not just practice religion, a clear reference to more sinister actions on the part of all adherents.

“It’s a sad day for freedom of religion,” said Mohammed Shafiq, the chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, a British youth organization. “A constitutional amendment that’s targeted towards one religious community is discriminatory and abhorrent.” He also stated that he was concerned that the vote could have implications in other European countries.  Amnesty International also stated that the ban violated the freedom of religion and may be eventually overturned by the Swiss Supreme Court or the European Court of Human Rights.

It is a sad fact that Muslims today across the world feel very much maligned by the press and media of most Western countries and the religion of Islam as many detractors and opponents who want to make it synonymous with terrorism and violence. Unfortunately the actions of 19 hijackers on September 11 changed forever the way non-Muslims see the religion of Islam. Furthermore, many incidents of violence and barbarianism perpetrated by individuals calling themselves Muslim have soured the non-Muslim world’s view of this great religion. There is indeed a need for dialogue and a better understanding between Islam and other faiths. Some readers may point out to the fact that in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and others, Christians and other minorities do not have many freedoms and one does not see the construction of new churches or synagogues. This is true, and yet these countries never professed to be bastions of freedom or tolerance and neither did they ever strive to be as have many European countries.

To further elaborate their point though, far too often, Muslims either have not spoke up loudly enough against violence or are afraid to speak up against the militants and extremists in fear of their lives for doing so. Many moderate Muslims feel there is enough blame to go around in the Muslim community for its inaction and muted responses to many horrific stories that come out about women’s rights, female mutilation, treatment of minorities and other stories that paint a very bad image of Islam. Too often one turns on the news to hear about another “Muslim” who blew himself up for one cause or another in some part of the world and it is no wonder that there are many misgivings about this religion of over 1 billion people.  However, there is also a clear bias against the religion of Islam that has persisted for centuries and has simmered and grown since the last Crusade. In an ever shrinking global community where we must all learn to live with each other, banning basic religious freedoms and expressions such as the ban by the government of Switzerland on minarets sends a clear signal to extremists on both sides that the ratcheting up of hatred and misunderstandings is now set to a new level of intolerance.

Reported by Manzer Munir for

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