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Imam warns minaret ban will fuel extremism

(Keystone)

A Muslim leader in Zurich says the proposed ban on the construction of minarets will have a negative impact on Muslims and on Switzerland.

Imam Sakib Halilovic tells swissinfo that the supporters of the initiative are playing with fire and the move could endanger cherished Swiss values, the image of the country and integration efforts.

The initiative is supported by members of the rightwing Swiss People's Party and a fringe ultra conservative group.

It was handed in to the federal authorities in July 2008 and will force a nationwide vote on the issue.

The Swiss government has already come out against the plan, while parliament still has to discuss it.

Muslim societies in Switzerland have reacted cautiously. Halilovic, the Imam for Bosnian Muslims in Zurich, says the issue is complex.

swissinfo: Do you understand the fear the supporters of the initiative have of a perceived "Islamisation" of Swiss society?

Sakib Halilovic: To some extent it is comprehensible – but it is not justified at all.

There are more than 350,000 Muslims in Switzerland. Those behind the initiative are fully aware of the figure and tolerate their presence. But the aim of the proposal is to negate a physical manifestation of Muslims. As if they are not allowed to be visible.

swissinfo: Why this contradiction?

S.H.: As always with religion it's about emotions and symbols. Behind it is the question of identification.

A place of worship has to have architectural value beyond its religious function. It can be a building that fits into the modern Swiss urban landscape like the mosque in Geneva.

swissinfo: But the initiative claims that minarets are symbols of power.

S.H.: I'm convinced that the proposal plays into the hands of extremists - and not only in this country. It will boost radical positions within the Muslim society in Switzerland.

The arguments used are on the intellectual level of the days of the crusades and it's exactly what extremists want.

But the Islamic communities of Switzerland are opposed to reasoning along the lines 'Muslims should not live in a Christian country'.

swissinfo: What impact does the initiative have on integration efforts?

S.H.: This way of thinking will have an adverse impact on the young generation. All those Muslims who were born and have grown up here think and feel Swiss. They trust in values such as freedom of religion and conscience, and in human rights which apply to all citizens.

They were born into a Muslim religious community, but still it goes without saying that for them the same rights apply to everybody.

Now they discover that some parts of the Swiss society would like to exclude them. It is a peculiar experience in a country which is proud of its democratic values, its freedom and its linguistic and religious diversity.

The young Muslim generation might wonder whether the same laws apply to everybody, or whether it is all just empty phrases.

swissinfo: How much damage is the initiative doing in the Muslim world?

S.H.: Switzerland enjoys an excellent reputation both with governments and people in the Muslim world.

The supporters of the minaret ban have no idea how much Switzerland's reputation will suffer.

They seem like people who would like to be part of a global movement against terrorist organisations. But they don't realise that they are attacking fundamental values of their own country and values of which they should be proud.

They put at risk peaceful co-existence and achievements in the integration policy in their country.

swissinfo: Is it realistic to assume that Christians would be allowed to build a church with a spire in a residential area of a Muslim country?

S.H.: There are no Muslim countries as such. There are many different countries [with Muslim populations] from the Far East to the Atlantic Ocean.

I admit that for the moment the construction of a Christian church is not possible in certain countries with Muslim populations.

But in other nations, including those in southeast Europe, it is not an issue.

Comparisons between Switzerland and countries in the Muslim world are skewed. The societies are too different.

You do not compare the freedom in Switzerland with that in Saudi Arabia or Iran. If you want to take their standards and use them as benchmarks here you will seriously endanger crucial Swiss values.

Alexander Künzle and Jean-Michel Berthoud, swissinfo.ch

In brief

In Switzerland, more than three-quarters of the population are Christians - 42% are Catholic, 35% Protestant and 2.2% other Christian denominations.

With around 350,000 members (4.3%), Islam is the second-largest religion in the country. Twelve per cent of Muslims have a Swiss passport. They come mainly from the Balkans and Turkey.

The Jewish community has about 18,000 members (0.2%), of which 80% are Swiss.

There are 28,000 Hindus and 21,000 Buddhists in the country.

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Minarets

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.

The authorities have granted permission to build minarets for mosques in the towns of Winterthur as well as in Wangen near Olten.

Request for minarets in at least two other towns, Langenthal and Wil, led to heated debates at the local level.

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