Islamophobia put to the vote in Switzerland

Planning permission, eh? The bane of developers, the saviour of green belt, the last resort of NIMBYs. But in Switzerland some people want to take things a step further.

The country will vote this weekend on whether to change the Swiss constitution to ban the construction of minarets (the tower on a mosque from which the call to prayer is issued). Not to just restrict them, not to ban all imposing religious structures, but an outright ban that solely targets muslim places of worship.

Those of you who, like me, find this utterly scandalous, should relax a little – apparently there’s very little chance of this getting through. Polls indicate that the Swiss population will probably vote around 60/40 against the ban. The political establishment and all the main religious organisations are opposed to it. And referenda are not unusual at all in Switzerland – apparently (from my poor Internet research) they have three or four each year and any issue can be put to a referendum if the proposers can muster 100,000 signatures, thus preserving a uniquely ‘direct’ character to Swiss democracy. I can imagine a few groups here in the UK seeing the appeal of such a system.

The initiators of the referendum say that this isn’t a freedom of religion issue. Minarets, they claim, have ‘no religious significance’: instead, they argue, they are “symbols of a religious-political claim to power and dominance”. I’m no Richard Dawkins but isn’t this what all religious buildings do? Exactly how is a great big church steeple, or a towering cathedral, any different? And while we’re on the subject, is the ringing of church bells on a Sunday morning all that different to the call to prayer? (Albeit, admittedly, a bit less often).

I should also add that minarets are hardly threatening to dominate the Swiss skyline. At the moment there are four of them. And muslims make up around four per cent of the Swiss population.

This islittle more than a targeted effort to restrict the freedom of religious belief of one specific group. Fine, mosques should be subject to the same sensible planning restrictions as other buildings and other places of worship. If for some reason you’re not allowed to build a tall building somewhere – be it part of a synagogue or a multi-story car park – then you can’t build a minaret there either.  But this new proposal would solely target the buildings of one religious group. It’s not really about buildings; it’s about people’s fear of Islam.

So I hope that the good people of Switzerland will return a resounding ‘no’ vote on Sunday and send out a clear message to Islamophobes all over Europe that they’re a bigoted minority.

Ulrich Schluer, a Swiss People’s Party parliamentarian who is one of the founders of the anti-minaret movement reportedly said to the Times’ Charles Bremner:
“The absolute numbers are not important. Switzerland's Muslims are expanding swiftly and imposing practices – notably the oppression of girls and women – which break Swiss law.”

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen any stories lately about minarets being used to oppress girls and women in Geneva or Lucerne. So if that’s really the issue here, perhaps a ban on the oppression of women – by people of any or no religion – might be a better idea?

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