Ministers rebuke Blocher over Muslim meeting

Pascal Couchepin (left) is known for his differences of opinion with Christoph Blocher Keystone Archive

Cabinet ministers have sharply criticised Justice Minister Christoph Blocher for not informing them of a planned meeting with Muslim organisations on Tuesday.

This content was published on March 23, 2007 minutes

President Micheline Calmy-Rey and Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin have both warned of the dangers of stigmatising Muslims and have reminded Blocher that he is not the only person responsible for integration.

"To focus exclusively on one religious community when dealing with the problems of integration is an approach which not only isolates, but also raises fears of creating a stigma," Calmy-Rey was quoted on the AP news agency as saying on Friday.

"This approach attaches to a single community, the Muslims, the problems and difficulties connected to integration," said Calmy-Rey, who is also the foreign minister.

Couchepin told various Swiss newspapers published on Friday that issues regarding integration were not the sole responsibility of the justice ministry but concerned other ministries as well.

He said he would therefore make sure that all seven government ministers discussed the topic together at their next meeting on Wednesday, adding that he personally had a different attitude to integration from Blocher.

"It is a mistake to want to treat Muslims in Switzerland as a faith community," he said.

"Whoever wants to give Muslims special treatment, whoever forces them into a corner and makes rigid laws for them, could well be creating new problems instead of solving existing ones."

"Essential question"

Questions concerning integration should not involve religion, Couchepin added, saying the "essential question" was how people of different nationalities could best be integrated, and here he said there were two fundamental but opposing views.

There is the view practised in Switzerland, he said, which involves successive waves of immigrants and which is based on the individual and his or her identity, taking into account nationality, culture, language and social origins.

The second fundamental "vision", according to Couchepin, is communitarianism as practised in Britain, which involves "creating a community and then talking to it via representative leaders".

Couchepin said that for the 300,000 Muslims in Switzerland religion is not a criterion in itself.

"It is not the sole element in someone's personality – even if it is a very important element," he said. "What's more, Islam is different in Kosovo, Senegal and Egypt just as Polish Catholicism is far removed from that in Mexico."

Wrong route

The interior minister said Blocher, who is a leading light of the rightwing Swiss People's Party, was going down the wrong route. "We must avoid communitarianism at all costs," he stressed.

A spokesman for the justice ministry said earlier that the planned meeting with representatives of Muslim organisations was an exchange of views with the aim of finding out if and how the process of integration should be carried out at a federal level.

He added the meeting was a response to a request not only from the justice ministry but also from Muslim organisations.

The justice ministry said in a statement on Friday that Tuesday's discussions would focus on the ministry's key topics of security and integration.

swissinfo with agencies

Muslims in Switzerland

There are about 340,000 Muslims in Switzerland, coming mainly from the Balkans and Turkey.

Their numbers are growing in Switzerland. They represented 2.2% of the population in 1990 and 4.3% in 2000.

One of the main reasons for the rise is the arrival of refugees from the former Yugoslavia.

Swiss society regularly faces demands from the Muslim community over issues such as Muslim plots in cemeteries, the erection of minarets and separate swimming sessions for men and women.

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