Switzerland's Muslim community is witnessing a xenophobic campaign by the political right-wing ahead of a vote next month on the banning of Islamic minarets.
The initiative 'Against the construction of minarets' was submitted last year by a committee of politicians from the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) and the conservative Federal Democratic Union (EDU). While the SVP holds 58 seats in Switzerland's National Council, the EDU only holds one of the the council's 200 seats. The committee says minarets are a "symbol for religious- political claims to power" and an instance of a creeping "Islamisation of Switzerland".
Aware of the unrest the initiative could provoke among Muslims around the world, the Swiss Federal Council, Switzerland's government, has asked voters to reject the amendment. Its call was followed by majorities against the initiative in the Council of States and the National Council, both chambers of the Swiss parliament.
Switzerland is home to about 350,000 Muslims, accounting for less than five percent of the population. Over the past 50 years, Muslim communities have built more than 150 mosques, mostly in homes, garages or in industrial areas. Only four minarets can be seen in the country, while construction of a fifth is legally disputed in Langenthal town.
Tensions are rising ahead of the Nov. 27 vote. Propaganda placards have led to lengthy debates in the media. One poster shows a veiled woman before a Swiss flag penetrated by several black minarets. The picture is accompanied by the words: "Stop. Yes to a ban on minarets."
Hisham Maizar heads the Federation of Islamic Umbrella Organisations, representing almost half the Islamic centres in Switzerland. "They claim that minarets will spread like mushrooms," he says. "It's unacceptable that minarets are presented like rockets and that the pictured woman symbolises an attitude which female Muslims can't identify with."
The initiative demands the addition of a single sentence to the Swiss constitution: "The construction of minarets is forbidden." For its critics, the story doesn't end here. "The initiative's real goal is not to avoid the construction of a few minarets in Switzerland," says Balthasar Glättli, secretary-general of Solidarité sans Frontières, an organisation promoting migrants' rights. "It's obvious that this campaign is about spreading fears of Islam and prejudices against people originating from Islamic countries."
Hisham Maizar, a Swiss doctor of Palestinian origin, is said to be Switzerland's most influential Muslim. He is also a founding member of the multi-faith Swiss Council of Religions. The national body made up of Jews, Christians and Muslims firmly rejects the initiative.
Maizar accuses the initiators of leading a proxy debate on Islam instead of minarets: "Their lack of arguments is indicated by their stereotyping: they claim that minarets stand for sharia, Islamisation and burqas. However, this isn't reflected in Switzerland's Islamic community at all. I can't remember when I last saw a woman wearing a burqa in this country."
Switzerland has experienced similar right-wing campaigns in recent years. In 2002 Swiss citizens voted on an initiative against 'asylum abuse'. A propaganda banner then showed a dark-skinned, black-haired man in black clothes, wearing black sunglasses and gloves, emerging from the middle of the Swiss flag and tearing it up. In 2007 and 2008, the SVP collected signatures for an initiative demanding the deportation of criminal foreigners, using the image of white sheep kicking a black sheep out of the Swiss flag.
"The initiative and the campaign have continuity as regards content and stand in a tradition of right-wing populist campaigning in Switzerland," says Damir Skenderovic, professor of contemporary history at the University of Fribourg near capital Bern. "However, the current focusing on a specific group is noticeable. The various migration-related votes and campaigns during the nineties were kept much more general. It was about 'the stranger' or 'the other', mainly in the form of asylum-seekers. Nowadays the focus is on one specific group, namely Muslim immigrants."
Skenderovic, who has published several studies on racism, right-wing extremism and migration politics in Switzerland, traces the origins of the right-wing discourse to the late eighties. "At that time splinter parties like Vigilance, National Action, and the Federal Democratic Union operated with the threat of an assumed Islamisation, the flooding of the Christian West by Islam. Nine-eleven definitely reinforced the discourse, but the phenomena itself has a much longer tradition."
As in many European countries, Muslims have often been depicted as being unable to integrate. The fiercest debates have erupted around veiled women, the refusal of some Muslim parents to let their daughters join swimming classes at school, and the conception of women in Islam in general. Maizar strongly disagrees with the widespread stereotype that all Muslims are the same: "The Muslim communities are very diverse. It's absurd to lump all Muslims together, as the populists are doing."
Balthasar Glättli points out that the hostile conception of Islam in Switzerland "is being nurtured totally independent of the number of Muslims in the country. It's an attempt to create a cultural unity among Swiss people. Such efforts usually serve less to define the enemy in detail, but more to create one's group identity vis-à-vis something external."
Valentina Smajli is originally from Kosovo - and Muslim. Living in Switzerland's Catholic heartland, she's active in the Social-Democratic Party and in various political projects on migrants' issues. She says that like herself, "many migrants from countries with a Muslim population treat their religion indifferently and don't define themselves through Islam. However, also these people sometimes are victims of hidden or frank anti-Muslim prejudices."
"Muslims in Switzerland are suffering from negative generalisations and headlines," agrees Andi Geu, co-director of the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), a Swiss institute devoted to fighting prejudice, racial discrimination and violence. "When looking for apprenticeship, work or housing, Muslims are often discriminated against."
Geu considers the SVP's anti-Muslim campaign a xenophobic effort "to keep its constituency mobilised and attached to the party. It's not about the minarets, it's about permanent election campaigning." NCBI is now running an information campaign on Islam to confront the new initiative.
Shahab, a young Kurdish refugee from Iraq living in Bern considers the anti- minaret initiative "a point of departure for right-wing attacks against all migrants in Switzerland. The initiative basically targets foreigners, not minarets," he says. "In the end two winners emerge: right-wing extremists and radical Islamists. For the latter it's becoming easier to present Muslims as an oppressed minority whose religious activities are being limited."
The current discourse on the 'Islamisation of Switzerland' can be seen in the tradition of what Skenderovic calls the 'discourse of overforeignisation'. The professor traces its origins back to the early 20th century. In Switzerland, the discourse's impact drastically increased before the Second World War: "Eventually, the discourse entered state policies and legislation. It continued in refugee policy and was strongly connected to anti-semitism in the thirties and the way the authorities dealt with Jewish refugees during the thirties and throughout the Second World War."
The discourse of 'overforeignisation' was revitalised in the sixties by state authorities, trade unions and right-wing populist parties, and became a keystone of splinter parties' agendas. Its continuity was largely connected to the radicalisation of the conservative Swiss People's Party.
"In the beginning of the nineties, specifically in 1991 and 1992, the SVP was organisationally and structurally more or less overtaken by Zurich's cantonal branch and the latter's agenda transferred to the federal SVP," says Skenderovic. "At that time, the SVP took over the discourse of 'overforeignisation' from the splinter parties, especially regarding asylum and integration policy."
Taking over radical right-wing parties' xenophobic agenda strengthened the SVP and was a key to its rise in the past two decades. On the national level, the SVP managed to swallow all parties on the right side of the political spectrum. In the 2007 federal elections, the last seat in the National Council held by the far-right party Swiss Democrats fell to the SVP, who won 29 percent of the vote.
In response to the anti-minaret placards, the local governments of Basel and Lausanne towns recently decided to prohibit their display. Various other cantons and cities have asked the Federal Commission against Racism for advice. The commission regards the images as reinforcing prejudices against Islam, presenting it as negative and potentially threatening.
But Hisham Maizar is against banning the posters. "I'm fundamentally against bans, and advocate freedom of speech. However, I'm clearly against the fact that the red lines of our democracy are crossed like this and that a specific group like the Muslims are attacked in such an impious way."
Balthasar Glättli says he too opposes restricting freedom of speech, but has some sympathy for those advocating the ban, because the campaign is really going way too far.
This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.