At the end of April, on the Swiss German-language television show Arena, one of the “rising stars” of the “Muslim scene” in Switzerland, convert Nicholas Abdullah Blancho, was present. With Blancho was an acolyte in his CCIS/IZRS (Conseil central islamique suisse/Islamisches Zentralrats Schweiz) organization, a certain young Swiss convert of Kurdish Alevi origin named Ferah U. While Mr. Blancho’s presence made headlines in last week’s Hebdo (where the title asked if he was the “Bin Laden of Bienne”), Ferah’s presence also merited articles in Blick, Le Temps, and the Tages Anzeiger.
Gone indeed are the days where the press turned only to Tariq Ramadan or to the imams of the mosques of Lausanne and Geneva to speak for Swiss Muslims. Last year’s media push in talking to “normal Swiss Muslims” (which came after the minaret vote) has given way to Blancho and his crew, who are being touted as the “new wave” of Swiss Muslims: converts from middle-class families who turn increasingly to what is seen and portrayed as “radical Islam” in the press.
In the press, there is an overriding sense of “Where did [we] go wrong with our young people?” Ferah is described as being a normal Swiss teenager prior to her conversion (who speaks in her local German dialect); she got rid of her jeans and sneakers and suddenly decided to change her lifestyle and choose “militant Islam.” Her marriage to Naim Cherni, a leader in Blancho’s organization, was like her conversion: against her family’s wishes. Her family considers her a runaway and she is now allegedly in hiding with her husband out of fears for her physical safety after violent episodes with her father over her marriage and conversion.
Blick and Le Temps mention an “instrumentalization” of 17-year-old Ferah, who” fell into the clutches” of the CCIS/IZRS. While Blick (a magazine comparable to The Sun) set out to interview Ferah directly in her home, Le Temps decided to speak to a researcher on conversions from the University of Bern about Ferah’s case within the context of other convert stories, rather than letting Ferah speak herself.One of the things I personally find interesting–in a positive sense–is that she is portrayed, despite being “second generation,” as a Swiss girl in all of the sources I read. While mention is made of her family’s rather violent opposition to her new lifestyle, other than being sensationalist journalism, there aren’t the same racialized judgment calls I would have seen in the French press.
As the researcher in the Le Temps article mentions that the CCIS/IZRS is a “young association” whose membership is not homogeneous, Tariq Ramadan and others assure that Blancho’s organization is of his own construct and that the CCIS/IZRS is far from being a central, representative body of Swiss Muslims.
Far more interesting is the sensational treatment in the press of Ferah being a normal girl who fell in with the wrong crowd, while her “leader” Blancho is increasingly called upon to give his opinion in the media on all things Muslim. While boys convert and become experts, the Swiss press seems to think girls convert and become brainwashed.
Ferah’s story, as “exotic” as it is now, may well become increasingly common in Switzerland in the coming months and years as its Muslim community comes of age. While the Blick pieces did speak to Ferah directly, there was a sideshow element to the articles (perhaps due to the nature of the magazine), whereas the “high-brow” media outlets like the Hebdo and Le Temps chose to profile non-Muslim experts or Blancho.
Hopefully, one day, the Muslim community will be seen not as a monolith but for the patchwork it is, with the voices of girls like Ferah being heard and seen in the media as part of a spectrum of beliefs, practices and choices, rather than just poor girls who fell in with the wrong crowd.