The vote to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland has been a wake-up call to both the government and Swiss Muslims, round table talks have shown.
Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf met six representatives of Islamic organisations in Bern on Monday, to discuss the situation of Muslims in the light of the anti-minaret vote passed by the Swiss public on November 29.
It was the third such meeting since the anti-minaret initiative was launched, but the first since it was passed. Follow-up meetings are planned where specific proposals will be discussed.
Widmer-Schlumpf told the participants that banning the construction of minarets made no difference to their freedom to practise their religion.
A communiqué issued afterwards by the justice ministry quoted her as saying that the vote was “the expression of problems, but at the same time provided an opportunity to conduct a broader debate on the issue”.
Her willingness to discuss the issues facing the Muslim community and to continue and expand dialogue was greatly appreciated by the participants but they did not shy away from raising issues.
“It was an informative, open conversation,” Hisham Maizar, president of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland, told swissinfo.ch.
“The state is the guarantor of everything that affects all religious communities. The Muslims do not want special rights. But there are some areas where things could be improved, so as to ensure that this protection really is forthcoming.”
Farhad Afshar, president of the Coordination of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland, outlined to swissinfo.ch a number of problems, some of which have been on the table for a long time.
For example, despite assurances from both the government and the opponents of minarets that the ban did not affect the right to construct mosques, Afshar asserted that in practice all applications to build sacred buildings met into objections.
“Islam is always being criticised for hiding in backyards and garages, and being invisible – but when we want to build an Islamic centre, or a mosque, communes will not allow us a reasonable site where it can be seen by the public,” he said.
The only mosque worthy of the name, which includes a library and teaching space, is the one in Geneva, and there is a small symbolic one in Zurich, he said. All the other places of worship are simply prayer houses.
The training of imams is another major issue. For years Muslims have been asking Swiss universities to establish courses for imams. The idea is supported by many political parties and experts in Switzerland, who see it as a way to ensure that Swiss Muslim communities have well-integrated clerics rather than bringing in outsiders who have no knowledge of Swiss conditions.
However, members of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party are against it for a variety of reasons, including not wanting taxpayers’ money spent on such training. Since the universities are financed by the cantons, political opponents can refuse to approve allocations to universities proposing such courses.
Afshar says that an alternative could be courses provided by the two centrally-funded federal institutes of technology, in conjunction with leading specialist universities in Islamic countries.
Muslims are also concerned about the lack of cemeteries where believers can be buried according to Islamic rites. Muslim who die in the “wrong” commune do not have this option, Afshar explained, and their bodies are often flown back to the country they originally came from, where their families cannot visit the grave.
“But the problem is worse than that. What do we do with a Swiss Muslim who didn’t come from some other country?” Afshar asked. In such cases it is necessary to find an Islamic country willing to accept the body for burial.
The world has changed, Afshar said. “Two hundred years ago we didn’t have the problem of migration. Today we live in an interdependent world, and the problems now being faced by religious minorities require a solution.”
While the Muslim organisations are happy about their relations with the authorities, it is clear that the way they are perceived by large swathes of the population is generally negative.
“Islam-bashing has become socially acceptable,” according to Afshar, who notes however that this contradicts people’s day-to-day experience of Muslims. “I have never heard of anyone saying, I am afraid of my Muslim neighbour. Or, I am afraid at work because I have a Muslim colleague,” he said.
He attributed the anti-minaret vote to the propagation of hostile images coming from abroad.
Maizar pointed out that the strongest yes vote came from areas where people were less likely to have met Muslims.
The problem is that the undoubted right of the Swiss people to express their opinion can restrict the rights of the minority, he said.
“If we just keep quiet about this, and don’t take advantage of the country’s guaranteed basic rights, that doesn’t seem to me to be very healthy for democracy.”
Julia Slater, swissinfo.ch
Muslims in Switzerland
The Muslim community in Switzerland accounts for about 4.5% of the population.
Most Muslim immigrants came from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. The community includes up to 100 nationalities.
The number of Muslims doubled between the censuses of 1990 and 2000, largely boosted by an influx of refugees and asylum seekers, including from the war in the former Yugoslavia.
There are about 200 mosques and prayer houses in Switzerland, but only four have a minaret.
Round table talks
The meeting was attended by Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf and six representatives of Muslim organisations in Switzerland.
the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland, headed by Dr Hisham Maizar
the Coordination of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland, headed by Dr Farhad Afshar
the Fondation de l’Entre-Connaissance, headed by Hafid Ouardiri, former spokesman of the Geneva mosque.
Another meeting will be held in about two months time, to look in detail at the current state of affairs and discuss specific proposals.
Widmer-Schlumpf wants to include a broader range of participants in follow-up