No minarets, we’re Swiss!

SwissMinaretBanI haven’t been following Swiss politics, so the headline on top of page A6 of Monday’s New York Times, “Swiss Ban Building of Minarets on Mosques,” was surprising, as was the lengthy (800+ words) article:

In a vote that displayed a widespread anxiety about Islam and undermined the country’s reputation for religious tolerance, the Swiss on Sunday overwhelmingly imposed a national ban on the construction of minarets, the prayer towers of mosques, in a referendum drawn up by the far right and opposed by the government.

The ban was supported by 57.5 of Swiss voters, and will be enacted into law within a year or so.

Is Switzerland is being overrun by minarets (which are the tall spires attached to Islamic mosques) or Muslim extremists? Not really.

Of 150 mosques or prayer rooms in Switzerland, only 4 have minarets, and only 2 more minarets are planned. None conduct the call to prayer. There are about 400,000 Muslims in a population of some 7.5 million people. Close to 90 percent of Muslims in Switzerland are from Kosovo and Turkey, and most do not adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with conservative Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, said Manon Schick, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International in Switzerland.

Government leaders said the ban was not a rejection of Muslims, their faith or their culture. It was beyond the ability of Times reporters Nick Cumming-Bruce (in Geneva) and Steven Erlanger (in Paris) to see how many people believed this, but the Muslims quoted by the reporters were understandably skeptical.

I read this article after flying through Mohsin Hamid’s bestseller, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, over Thanksgiving weekend. This brief but compelling novel gives readers a front row seat to the tensions that lie deep at the heart of Muslims’ experience in the West. I wonder how much this powerful book colored my reading of the story.

The article quoted opponents of the ban, while a supporter’s quote came from a televised debate held prior to the vote. The article also referred to “deep-rooted fears that Muslim immigration would lead to an erosion of Swiss values.”

The print version of the article described–but did not reproduce–the campaign poster pictured above, which is a masterpiece of visual propaganda as striking as the Goldwater “daisy” ad. Seven black minarets (or are those missiles?) dominate the Swiss flag. Then there’s the woman, covered from head to toe in a burqa. All we can see is her eyes, and what eyes they are: both seductive and frightful! The Swiss ban doesn’t address Muslim clothing, which has been a hot-button issue in neighboring France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy declared last summer that full veils and face coverings were “not welcome” on French soil.

Curiously, the online version of the Times story did not feature the poster but instead linked to an online story from The Sunday Times of London that featured a version of the poster’s imagery.

People around the world will be watching to see how this controversial story develops, both within Switzerland and in the broader European context, where it may lead to conflicts with agreements on human and religious rights.

Meanwhile, kudos to these Times reporters for a thorough story on a complex issue.

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  • Dave

    This vote is simply appalling. I can’t get my head around the journalistic issues without noting that only two populations can find anything positive in this outcome: racist nationalists and Islamicist extremists.

  • Sifta

    Dave.. about 58% of the voters voted for the ban, and I don’t think that they fit into your latter grouping.

  • Perpetua

    Why isn’t this being presented as a simple “city planning” issue comparable to banning unsightly billboards or tacky neon lights? It seems that the use of minarets for the call to prayer is already banned due to noise ordinances. So why would there be a desire to build nonfunctioning minarets? Also, why is the association with missiles always being made? The minaret image seems to be based on an actual minaret in Zurich. If that minaret looks like a missile, then why not blame that architect and realize this IS genuine city planning issue? Those are my questions.

  • steve

    You misread. The article cited says 57.5% of those swiss who voted, not of all eligible swiss voters, as your statement implies. Other articles claim that less than 50% of eligible swiss voters actually bothered to vote.

  • Judy Harrow


    If this was some sort of legitimate city planning issue — well that’s a bit hard to imagine, but maybe some sort of concern about the height of buildings changing the streetscape or blocking the light or something — then the ban should equally apply to commercial or residential high rises … and to church steeples, which are directly equivalent to minarets.

    Other than that, it’s plain old religious bigotry.

  • Peterk

    The American Spectator blog says it best;

    “So Switzerland’s response to its Muslim critics should be a simple “Shut up!” When Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, and other Islamic nations start protecting the rights of Jews, Christians, Bahais, and other religious minorities, then they can lecture the West on religious liberty. Until then, they should just Shut up! ”

  • Hicham Maged

    I see problem with this vote not in the minaret themselves but stereotyping and the SVP’s poster that is shown here relfects this clearly.

  • Jerry

    From Peterk’s post, the American Spectator is clearly not a Christian-oriented publication because it’s not following Christ’s words in the sermon on the mount. And it of course ignores the millions of non-Muslims who find the bigotry the poster illustrate and promoted and the vote reflected disgusting and will not “shut up” about it.

    This does illustrate that the problem of hatred of the other is not just limited to Europe although dealing with immigrants is much more problematical there because there’s no “melting pot” culture as there is in the US, for all our faults.

    Covering this in the media can be difficult but I’m happy that you found the story well-written.

  • Peterk

    sorry Jerry but I don’t see where there is any hatred in the AmSpec posting. I did see any number of Muslims whining about how unfair it is. and I don’t think Jesus meant for us to let our neighbors just run roughshod against.

    but then again there are many Christians I suspect who do not know what the Muslim conquerors did to churches in conquered lands nor what happens to Christians and non-Christian minorities in Muslim majority lands

  • John Hope

    Europeans are attacking direct democracy.
    I know, they historically are more used to dictators, world wars and genocides.
    And please stop confusing minarets with religions. No other country is so tolerant as Swiss is.
    Swiss just don’t like to ruine the perfect look of swiss landscape.
    In Switzerland you even can’t build anything that is aestetically not harmonious with the landscape.
    It’s just a question of taste.

    What makes me really mad is that there are still crazy people who discourage democracy, in favor of what? musilim?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Now how about some media coverage on how -in virtually every Moslem majority country— churches can’t have bells or steeples, can’t hold public processions, and frequently can’t even build churches. In the meanwhile Christian businesses and individuals are regularly savaged and threatened (most stories of which never make it into the Western media.)

  • str

    I agree with Jerry against Peterk.

    After all, thos Swiss bigots did not ban minarets out of any concern for Christians or others living in Islamic countries.

    As for the Swiss having a “reputation for religious tolerance” – I am sure the reputations exists but I wonder why. After all, this is a country that forces Catholics and mainstream Protestants to exist as state churches and forces companies to pay church taxes. It is a country build in 1848 on policy of religious suppression.

  • Fred Robinson

    Maybe when the first christian church is allowed to be built in Saudi Arabia then all will be okay. Islam is the only religion allowed there.

  • Perpetua

    Is str right? Does Switzerland have state churches? That would imply Christianity is the state religion. Have any reporters done any articles on this?

  • Julia


    All over Europe the governments decide which religions they will allow in their countries. Germany collects taxes to support churches, ministers and priests. In France, the government owns the churches. In England, there is an official religion. Germany will not allow Scientology. Norway still have an official Lutheran church although hardly anybody goes to church anymore. The US is rather unusual in our attitude toward religion. In fact, Benedict XVI rather admires our government-church relationship. It is said by some that resentment of government financial support of churches is behind the cynicism toward religion in Europe today.

  • str


    “All over Europe the governments decide which religions they will allow in their countries.”

    Well, no. All over (at least Western) Europe freedom of religion does exist. There is NO country disallowing any religion. But there is more to religious freedom than that. This case (of minarets) is one of bullying one particular religion by interfering into its own affairs. Certainly, it might not be very vital for Muslims to have minarets, but it is still a violation of the principle.

    “Germany collects taxes to support churches, ministers and priests.”

    Not quite. Germany allows certain religious groups (qualified by being both stable and loyal to the constitution) to raise membership dues through the taxation system – and gets paid for this service. The churches in question are the Catholic Church, various mainstream Protestant churches and Jewish congregations. J…’s witnesses also have that status but thus have far haven’t used it.

    “In France, the government owns the churches.”

    Actually, the French government claims to own the older church buildings. It hasn’t been able to enforce its legislation in 1905 due to civil resistance by parishes.

    “Germany will not allow Scientology.”

    Nonsense! The German revenue department doesn’t accept the “Church of Scientology” as a church, treating it as the for-profit company it is. As such, the CoS is perfectly free to operate its business.


    in Switzerland, there is no federal system of church-state relations, everything happens on the level of the individual cantons.

    Most cantons however have in the 19th century installed so-called “Landeskirchen” (Protestant and Catholic separate), which is “democratically” organised bottom-up and manages the finances paid by the church members, passing on money to the proper church authorities as they see fit. Note that in some cases, companies are obliged to pay church taxes to theese organisations.

    In Protestant Landeskirchen, the main problem is an erosion of theological distinguishing markers. The Landeskirche Zürich even at one point decided to dispense with all that doctrinal stuff and be define solely as a union of its members.

    In Catholic Landeskirchen, the main problem is the development of a second hierarchy in competition to the bishops. As the Landeskirche controls the money, they can make life miserable for a bishop trying to his job. Even though legally the bishop’s approval is needed for parish priests, the system has allowed parishes to resist their bishops in this.

    This system was imposed in the 19th century during the Kulturkampf. Prussia and France attempted similar things (so much for France’s 1905 law on the “separation” of church and state) but failed due to the stubborn recistance of Catholic laypeople.

    For those able to read German, here are articles on the Landeskirchen system and a recent case of conflict.

  • str

    Fred Robinson,

    “Maybe when the first christian church is allowed to be built in Saudi Arabia then all will be okay. Islam is the only religion allowed there.”

    Tell us something new about Saudi-Arabia.

    But is the fact that some governments (those in Islamic countries) run roughshod over religious freedom an argument for another government (that of Switzerland) doing the same?

    Sure, someone arguing for the right of Muslims in Switzerland but against those of Christians in an Islamic country is a hypocrite (e.g. Mr Erdogan of Turkey) but that still doesn’t make the Swiss move right and dandy.

    Especially when the motivation behind the minaret ban is not Christian at all! The first church in Saudi Arabia would sure be a good development but not “all” would be okay in that country. And the Swiss would certainly not repeal their atrocious amendment.

  • Julia


    You are more knowledgable about the particulars than I was, but my point was that religion and the state are way more entangled in Europe than in the US. I’d include Eastern Europe in that. Catholics are having a hard time getting their churches back in the Ukraine. I don’t think most Americans understand that.

    Germany does not allow Scientology to operate as a church, and all that means legally, but doesn’t prevent it from existing in Germany as an organization of some kind. I’d say that’s interfering in a way our government does not.

    I think people are arguing for reciprocity.

  • str


    while that point of yours is true (but remember that things used to be different in America as well), you cannot justify by that your repeating false claims. Repeating, because you are doing it again.

    “Germany does not allow Scientology to operate as a church, and all that means legally, but doesn’t prevent it from existing in Germany as an organization of some kind. I’d say that’s interfering in a way our government does not.”

    Just not true.

    Germany does allow Scientology to operate period! Just look at the elaborate centre they have built in Berlin.

    It does not recognise the body called “Church of Scientology” as a religious community but as a for-profit business. After all th CoS takes huge fees for their services. That in itself does not pass judgement on the benevolence or malvolence of that body. But it means that the CoS’s huge profits are to be taxed.

    Your claim that the U.S. government does not interfere like that is either ignorant or hypocritical. Firstly, the IRS used to tax the CoS as well until they stopped. Foul play has been suggested in that change. Secondly, since the 1960s the U.S. government threatens churches that endorse a candidate in elections with revoking their tax exempt status – in my book that is a mucher greater interference and actually one that doesn’t make much sense.

    The one thing where German interference is greater, is that in Germany the Verfassungsschutz, an agency existing both on the federal and the state level, monitors groups that might be a threat to the constitution. State government also have Sektenbeauftragte, which look at religious fringe groups. However, their work in no way hinders any one, it just provides information. Sure they can be overzealous but then their power is very limited.

    But I am headed up to hear with gullible people in America believing all the Scientology fairy tales about how persecuted they are.