Swiss Muslims deal with 9/11

Muslims at prayer in their home

Ten years ago Islamic extremists flew three planes into three iconic US buildings and the fall-out is still being felt.

This content was published on September 9, 2011
Julia Slater,

Muslims suddenly found themselves being regarded with suspicion as potential terrorists in many countries and their religion denigrated.

Like most people who saw the attacks on television, Swiss citizen Nezhda Drissi remembers the day well.

“My first reaction was that Muslims are incapable of doing something as terrible as that,” she told Drissi, who was born in Morocco, has lived in Switzerland for 20 years.

Tunisian human rights activist Larbi Guesmi said he had been shocked by the scale of the attacks – and concerned about the impact they might have.

He totally rejected the justification offered by the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation that the attacks were a response to United States behaviour.

“There have been numerous instances of aggression and humiliation by the US towards the Muslim world, but such attacks do nothing for the just causes of the Muslims,” he said.

“They were only good for dictatorships to barricade themselves behind ‘the fight against terrorism’ in order to keep their people down  - and that’s still going on now.”

Suspicion and mistrust

Guesmi pointed to the mistrust which he himself has experienced.

“Even now, all over the place, we keep getting black looks full of hatred and a desire to take vengeance against us.”

Drissi – who describes herself as not looking particularly foreign – says she has not experienced personal hostility, but has become used to the extra questioning she is subjected to in the US as soon as she shows her passport with her name and visas for Arab countries.

“You put up with it, while remaining dignified. Being a Muslim is not defect,” she said.

Being a Muslim

Political scientist Elham Manea, who holds Yemeni and Swiss citizenship, told that 9/11 had narrowed people’s perception of her, focussing on the fact of her being Muslim and forgetting the other aspects of her complex identity.

Although she regrets this, she says it has one positive effect, in that the “serious media” started to try to discover what being a Muslim was about.

“On the other hand there was the very bad development of rightwing parties taking advantage of this situation, turning it into a political issue to expand their constituency.”

Drissi has reacted by reaching out to non-Muslims. In particular, she opens her doors on one evening in Ramadan, inviting anyone who is interested to share the evening meal that breaks the fast.

“We Muslims must be proactive,” she explained. “I’m not acting against something, but for something: for intercultural, religious dialogue, and to find what unites us and makes us all stronger.”

Not surprisingly, most of the non-Muslims who join her for the Ramadan meal are not worried about Islam. But sometimes she gets guests who are more hostile.

“I had a gentleman who phoned and said he belonged to the [rightwing] People’s Party. I was really pleased. When he came he had so many questions.  And most of his questions were based on fear.

“He was delighted with the evening. We have a guest book, and he wrote something very nice. But I think his convictions are stronger than anything he saw here.” 


Guesmi is less proactive than Drissi – but he too sees hostility against Islam as the result of fear.

“I like people, and as for those who show hatred and racism and are prisoners of their prejudices, I feel sorry for them and pray for them, and advise them to get treatment.”

This fear is dangerous, he said: it is devastating society and “everyone needs to act because everyone is the loser”.

Both Manea and Drissi are determined not to be victims and not to be scapegoats.

Drissi admits that many Muslims – the silent majority – simply put up with hostility and wait for things to get better.

“Of course you are tempted to react like that, because you have your own life, your own affairs. But you can’t. You have responsibilities, you have your children. What kind of future are you preparing for them?”

Manea agrees.

“We should take responsibility and be part of society. You cannot do that by sitting and complaining that the world is discriminating against you. You should be active and take part.”

She accepts that there have always been scapegoats, in every society – including Muslim ones. Taking the long view in Switzerland, she points out that different migrant communities have been affected at different times. So have religious groups: not only Jews but also Catholics have been discriminated against in the past.

Positive developments

Manea, who is active in progressive Muslim groups in Switzerland, sees a positive aspect to the fallout from 9/11 within the Muslim community.

“It brought to the forefront issues many of us were reluctant to talk about: Islamic fundamentalism, and the fact that there are fringe groups preaching hate and that one shouldn’t remain silent when such groups start to do that.”

She is often contacted by young Swiss Muslims – and what they want to talk about is not discrimination from outside, but the alienation they feel within their own community. It’s not necessarily to do with religion: it may be more to do with patriarchal structures and traditions.

For her this as a normal intergenerational development. She is optimistic that these young Muslims will find their own way of practising their religion and traditions that fits in with their Swiss identity.

Muslims in Switzerland

There are between 350,000 and 400,000 Muslims living in Switzerland.

Around 12% are Swiss citizens.


The size of the Muslim community has grown from 2.2% in 1990 to 4.3% in 2000.

Most Muslim immigrants came from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. But the community includes up to 100 nationalities.

The number of Muslims doubled between the censuses of 1990 and 2000, largely because of an influx of refugees and asylum seekers, including from the war in the former Yugoslavia.

Three-quarters of the Swiss population is Christian: 42% Catholics, 35% Protestants and 2.2% other Christian faiths.

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On September 11 2001 four coordinated suicide attacks  were carried out, involving flying commercial planes into buildings.

Three of the attacks hit their targets: the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.

The fourth plane, apparently making for either the Capitol or the White House, crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers acted to thwart the hijackers.

About 3,000 people from over 70 countries were killed, the vast majority of them civilians in the World Trade Center. 

Suspicion quickly fell on the al-Qaeda organisation, which eventually claimed responsibility.

In different pronouncements it named as its motives the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia (site of the holiest places in Islam); US support for Israel, and sanctions against Iraq.

Then US President George W. Bush responded by launching what he called the “war on terror”,  aimed at eliminating al-Qaeda and similar organisations.

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