A new prototype for mosques in Switzerland – one meant to blend in and to minimise any possible offence – has arisen in a place that was ground zero in a bruising fight over the construction of minarets.
The new mosque that has opened in Wil,external link Switzerland, conforms to the 2009 Swiss voter-approved constitutional ban on the construction of new minarets, reflecting a significant local-led effort to overcome the European backlash against a growing Muslim population.
The weekend-long dedication culminates a years-long effort by Muslim groups in Switzerland to overcome resistance to putting in a new mosque in Wil, the third-biggest city in canton St Gallen. The resistance is a reflection of Europeans’ fractured views toward migration, Islam, nationalism and European unity. Due to the ban on construction of the iconic mosque towers, Muslims in Wil had to adapt their blueprints.
The surprise vote eight years ago put Switzerland in a harsh spotlight, with Muslims condemning the vote as anti-Islamic and prejudiced and Swiss businesses cautioning that it undermined efforts to promote an international image of Switzerland as a tolerant and liberal society.
The new mosque is being led by imam Bekim Alimi, a Macedonian who speaks German. At the mosque opening on Saturday, Alimi told Swiss Public Radio, RTS: "Integration is also about showing oneself, not just hiding."
A solemn start
The new mosque, which was built at the end of a street near a football stadium, bears an inscription, "Mosque Wil - Xhamia Wil", serving as a welcome for the area’s many Albanian-born Muslims.
“It is a great pleasure for us to invite you to the solemn inauguration of the new Islamic Meeting Center Wil. Together with you we would like to celebrate the opening,” said the Islamic Culture Center of Wil in a statementexternal link posted online.
“Since the submission of our planning material for the establishment of the Islamic Center of Excellence Wil, much time has passed,” it said. “This path was no easier for us, both politically and economically. Nevertheless, we have remained firm and have fought for our right and intent.”
With enough space for about 400 visitors, the centre for Muslim prayer in Wil took two years to build at a cost of about CHF5 million ($5 million). The project also overcame numerous local objections among some who feared the mosque might invite some adherents of radical extremism into the community.
It is the newest of more than 200 Swiss mosques – another new one is in the works in the Geneva area – that serve up to 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland, or nearly 5% of the nation’s 8.3 million population.
About one of every ten is a Swiss citizen, but the Muslims in Switzerland represent an extremely diverse community divided along ethnic and linguistic lines. Around 80% originate from the Balkans region and Turkey.
A decade ago, plans to build minarets on mosques in the towns of Langenthal, Wil and Wangen near Olten in the German-speaking regions, sparked controversy. It peaked in a nationwide ballot on November 29, 2009, when voters approved an initiative by rightwing parties to ban the construction of new minarets with a majority of 57.5%.
The result was seen as a major political upset and made headlines around the world. The seven-member cabinet external linkthat heads Swiss government had announced strong opposition to the initiative, but said it accepted the vote and moved to enforce an immediate ban on minaret construction.
Concerns about growing Muslim minorities have spread across Europe in recent years, prompting French moves to ban the full-length body covering known as the burqa and some German states to introduced bans on head scarves for Muslim women teaching in public schools.
Mosques and minaret construction projects elsewhere in European have been met by protests.
More recently, people in the southern Swiss canton of Ticino since July 2016 have not been allowed to wear clothing that covers their face in public. The measure resulted from a 2013 cantonal vote calling for a ban on such clothing typically worn by Muslim women. A committee is now collecting signatures for a similar nationwide ban.
Few actual minarets
In Switzerland, only the mosques in Geneva, Zurich and Wangen, near Olten, have a minaret. Winterthur’s mosque has only a small one. But the call to prayer is not made from these minarets.
But even a local politician in Wil, Lukas Reimann, who helped lead the anti-minaret vote as a member of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, Switzerland’s largest, said he never opposed the building of the new Wil mosque.
The city of Wil external linkhas about 23,000 inhabitants, about 15% of which belong to the Islamic faith and are organised in a separate association. Most come from Albania and Bosnia. In November 2011, the association submitted a building permit for the construction of an Islamic meeting place.
Against the project there was resistance from local residents and the Swiss People’s Party. The approximately 200 objections were rejected. After several changes of location, the prayer room is now housed in a backyard on the railway line.
"The Muslims should have a representative place where they can exercise their faith," Reimann was quotedexternal link as saying in the Aargauer Zeitung.