Switzerland works to defuse tensions

The Mahmud mosque in Zurich, one of only two in Switzerland with a minaret Keystone

Switzerland's experience as a country of four different cultures is helping it face today's challenges of integration, says Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.

This content was published on January 16, 2008 - 16:59

Speaking in Madrid on Tuesday she outlined the ways in which Switzerland is working at home and abroad to defuse tensions between peoples of different beliefs and cultures.

"Switzerland has resolved its religious conflicts by favouring a system which prevents one part from dominating another," she told the forum of the Alliance of Civilisations.

Despite the positive experience which she brought to the meeting, she faced questioning about attempts by right-wingers to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland.

The forum brought together politicians, representatives of civil society and the media from more than 70 countries to tackle the challenges that religious and cultural diversity pose for the international community.

Immigration challenge

Calmy-Rey said the new challenge Switzerland faces is that of immigration, which has brought a new diversity of culture and belief. The government has a continuing dialogue with representatives of different religions within the country, and backs measures to counter all forms of racism, she said.

But dialogue in itself does not necessarily solve problems. The foreign minister said that in the context of its peace promotion policy, Switzerland supported projects looking at ways in which different communities and groups could live together.

She cited the example of a project in Central Asia, where Switzerland is helping opposing groups to work out a common syllabus for private religious schools. The idea is to reduce foreign religious influence and build a bridge with state schools.

This experiment could be a help to other countries where a secular government coexists with a Muslim majority population, she said.

Minaret initiative

On the sidelines of the forum, Calmy-Rey held talks with Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary-general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Ihsanoglu had asked to speak to her about the people's initiative that has been launched against the building of minarets in Switzerland, an issue which has aroused considerable concern among Muslims.

She stressed that the Swiss government "took the initiative very seriously", said foreign ministry spokesman Raphael Saborit.

Swiss Muslims are not necessarily as concerned as their foreign counterparts about the issue.

"I am quite relaxed about this initiative," Hisham Maizar, chairman of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland, and a member of the Swiss Council of Religions, told swissinfo.

"It won't get through because it is a violation of human rights, anti-constitutional, and a violation of international law."

Although the Swiss system of direct democracy enables citizens to launch initiatives of all kinds, the law is there as a safeguard, he pointed out.

The parties proposing the ban are populists, who put themselves forward as champions of the weak, he said. But Switzerland offers a guarantee against excesses.

"Switzerland cannot be ruled by a single party. You always have to make concessions because no one party can ever gain an absolute majority of votes," Maizar said. "Switzerland is an exception in Europe."

swissinfo, Julia Slater

Key facts

The Alliance of Civilisations was the brainchild of Spanish Prime Minister José Zapatero. He proposed it in an address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2004, a few months after the terrorist attack in Madrid which left nearly 200 people dead.

The idea was backed by the United Nations, and officially launched in 2005.

Switzerland has been a supporter since the beginning, and has contributed SFr300,000 ($273,000). More than 70 countries now belong to the alliance.

It held its first forum in Madrid from January 15-16, 2008.

End of insertion
In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here. Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

Sort by

Change your password

Do you really want to delete your profile?

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Almost finished... We need to confirm your email address. To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

Discover our weekly must-reads for free!

Sign up to get our top stories straight into your mailbox.

The SBC Privacy Policy provides additional information on how your data is processed.