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Controversy focuses attention on Swiss Muslims

Muslim women open an exhibition aimed at improving understanding of Islam

(Keystone Archive)

A leading Swiss Muslim has been accused of inciting religious tension in Switzerland.

The Swiss Commission Against Racism publicly condemned Hani Ramadan, a state secondary school teacher, for advocating the stoning of adulterers under Islam.

In an open letter to the French newspaper "Le Monde", Ramadan, who as well as being a teacher heads an Islamic centre in Geneva, also came out in favour of a religious ban on Aids sufferers.

Ramadan was suspended from teaching by the canton of Geneva following complaints from parents that they did not want someone with extremist views instructing their children.

Ramadan has vowed to use all legal options to fight the canton's decision and resume teaching.

The former public prosecutor, Bernard Bertossa, is currently investigating the legitimacy of the Genevan authorities' decision.

Hardened attitudes

Although Switzerland is an overwhelmingly Christian country, Islam is now in third place behind the Catholic and Protestant churches.

Despite that, sensitivities toward Islam have hardened since the September 11 attacks on the United States and the global fight against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

Earlier this month, the canton of Valais denied a residence permit to a Muslim cleric from Macedonia, citing his extreme views.

The Commission Against Racism reprimanded Ramadan for potentially encouraging discrimination against Switzerland's sizeable Muslim minority - which now numbers over 300,000 people.

"Extreme statements like these take the whole Muslim community - or any other minority - hostage," Commission director, Doris Angst Yilmaz, told swissinfo.

"I understand that some people are now afraid that this might direct hostility toward Muslims," she continued.

"Under fire"

Muslims suddenly feel under fire from society, Taner Hatipogliu, deputy head of the society of Islamic organisations in Zurich told swissinfo. Non-Muslim Swiss "might think 'hey you're here, living with us and look at what you're saying'. So Muslims feel badly."

The furore surrounding Ramadan has served to take Switzerland's Muslim community "ten steps back", he lamented. "This type of publicity harms all the activities undertaken in the area of integration."

Yilmaz points out that perhaps the most dangerous side effect of the whole issue is that such statements may work to further "alienate the Swiss majority in its acceptance of the minority".

Out of place

Fribourg University law professor, Thomas Fleiner believes that the debate generated by Ramadan's remarks should be used as a launch pad to discuss Islam's place in Switzerland, which most Muslims are keen to improve.

"We should get to the heart of the problem," Fleiner said. "We need to find solutions to integrate children in a multicultural society and that requires more discussion."

One place to start would be for Switzerland to make more of an effort to get to know the Muslim society, which is "living, working and paying taxes with us", Fleiner argued.

"I think this case teaches us that we need more knowledge and expertise on issues of Islamic and Sharia law, as well as Islamic culture and traditions. It also teaches us to know there are many differing opinions within Islam."

swissinfo, Samantha Tonkin

Islam summary

Islam is Switzerland's second religion after Christianity.
The Muslim community has more than doubled over the last decade to number 300,000 people.
Muslims are concerned that Ramadan's remarks could deepen their isolation in Switzerland.

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