The construction of minarets in Switzerland looks sets to go to a nationwide vote after a group of rightwing politicians launched a campaign calling for a ban.This content was published on May 3, 2007 - 07:55
The country's Muslim community says it is stunned by what it sees as an "Islamophobic" move, which it warns will undermine already fragile relations.
Those behind a people's initiative, who include members of the county's biggest political party, the Swiss People's Party, have until November 2008 to raise the 100,000 signatures required to force a ballot.
Opponents are angling their attack on article 72 of the Swiss constitution, which allows the authorities to take appropriate measures to maintain the peace among different religious communities.
People's Party parliamentarian Ulrich Schlüer, who is co-president of the campaign committee, argues that the construction of minarets will create problems in communities and threaten the peace.
This has already happened in cantons Solothurn and Bern where plans to build minarets have run into local opposition.
"The minaret has nothing to do with religion: it is not mentioned in the Koran or other important Islamic texts. It just symbolises a place where Islamic law is established," Schlüer told swissinfo.
And it is this issue of Islamic law, and its so-called "incompatibility" with Swiss law, that lies at the root of rightwingers' complaints about minarets.
"No one in the [People's Party] is anti-Muslim. I think all Muslims in Switzerland are free to live here, but they have to respect that we have western-oriented liberal laws and that these laws are valid for everyone who wants to live here," said Schlüer.
He added that he had yet to receive the official backing of his party, but believes this will be forthcoming at its general assembly at the end of June when strategy will be fine-tuned ahead of October's parliamentary elections.
The rightwing drive to force a nationwide vote on minarets is being seen as a major setback by the League of Swiss Muslims. Adel Méjri, the organisation's president, says the construction of minarets is not even a priority for Swiss Muslims.
"As an organisation that is helping Muslims to integrate and become model citizens, we are shocked by this initiative," he said.
"In our opinion, there are other far more important issues to address but the launching of this initiative blocks the possibility of dialogue."
What particularly galls Méjri is the fact that at the end of March the Swiss justice minister and strongman of the People's Party, Christoph Blocher, invited around 20 members of the Muslim community for talks on integration and security.
Méjri also points to a report by the Federal Commission against Racism in September last year, which revealed that Swiss Muslims face discrimination in all walks of life – a situation that could be exacerbated by the minarets' affair.
"Through dialogue we can find solutions but the aggressive – or dare I say "Islamophobic" – way in which this [minarets] is being treated could have unforeseen consequences. This kind of initiative threatens peace and hurts Muslims," he said.
Both the Protestant and Catholic churches have rallied to the defence of the Muslim community, claiming the constitutional right to religious freedom allows the building of minarets.
"We must recognise that there are a large number of Muslims in Switzerland and they have a right to practise their religion," said Walter Müller, spokesman for the Swiss Bishops Conference.
Yet while church leaders dismiss the initiative as a propaganda stunt, they say there is a deep need for further and extensive dialogue to help allay public fears of Islam.
"While it's true that there is this right to religious freedom, I don't think we can suddenly erect 20 minarets in Switzerland without there being an understanding of how Muslims practise their faith and an understanding of the importance of a minaret or mosque," said Simon Weber, spokesman for the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches.
swissinfo, Adam Beaumont
A minaret is a tower, traditionally part of a mosque, with a balcony from which a muezzin calls Muslims to prayer. In modern mosques, the minaret is equipped with loudspeakers.
In Switzerland, only the mosques in Geneva and Zurich have a minaret. The call to prayer is not made from these minarets.
A survey last year in Le Matin newspaper found that 43% of French-speaking Swiss questioned favoured a ban on minarets.
There are around 340,000 Muslims in Switzerland.
Almost 12% of them hold a Swiss passport.
Most of them come from the Balkans or Turkey.
Numbers have risen in recent years, rising from 2.2% of the population in 1990 to 4.3% in 2000.
In compliance with the JTI standards