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The Swiss ban on minarets and why it should concern us

Although little reported on in our press, a firestorm of controversy has been unleashed by the result of a Swiss referendum at the end of last month banning the construction of new minarets — the distinctive tall spires attached to Islamic mosques — 57.5% of the participating voters supported the proposal.

Incongruous though this may seem, proponents of the ban insist that they are taking a stand against oppression, not implementing it. They allege that minarets are not intrinsic to the Islamic faith but rather are “a symbol of religious-political power”. Moreover, allowing the people to determine for themselves whether or not to allow them was evidence of Swiss democracy at work.

Radical feminists, citing opposition to the oppression of women in Islamic societies, reportedly favour the ban, and in pre-election polling women indeed supported it by a greater percentage than did Swiss men. The referendum campaign featured provocative posters showing images of a heavily veiled Muslim next to a number of minarets “protruding from a Swiss flag pictured in a way reminiscent of missiles”. Amongst other things, this calls to mind the similarly provocative imagery of the Danish cartoon controversy a few years back.

The Swiss have come under heavy fire for what the Vancouver Sun described as an “unexpected and shocking act of religious intolerance”, in which the country’s small Muslim minority had been painted as “a dangerous force bent on undermining democracy”. So far as the claim that the referendum being representative of democracy in action goes, Al-Jazeera columnist Anas Altikriti asks how in the first place a democratic society could “begin to contemplate holding a popular vote on a matter that is regarded integral to the core themes of freedom and rights”.

Naturally, much of the outrage expressed has come from the Islamic world, but they have been widely joined by traditional liberal democrats. Michael J Stickings was no doubt echoing what many others in this camp felt when he wrote that Switzerland, a country that generally valued freedom highly, had essentially “voted against its own principles, against itself”. Stickings concluded:

    The Swiss people have voted stupidly, irresponsibly, and illiberally. They’ve made themselves look bad, and acted counter-productively, at a time when we need to be fighting religious extremism, including jihadist Islamism, not by violating our principles but by reinforcing just what it is we stand for.

There are a number of contradictory responses that this affair elicits. Certainly, it is concerning that a country previously regarded as modern and progressive should have chosen to take so retrograde a step. In this case, a religious minority has been denied a right accorded to every other faith group, an openly discriminatory act clearly founded on actual anti-Islam antagonism.

On the other hand, how seriously can one take Muslim objections to religious discrimination against them given how minority faiths are treated in so many Muslim countries? Indeed, compared to the prevailing situation in such countries as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and even Egypt, a mere ban on building new minarets looks rather tame.

In Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, individuals are punished for displaying crosses or Stars of David and jailed for preaching or praying in public. The possession of Bibles, while not a crime in theory, can carry severe penalties when the possession of large quantities is considered to be evidence of intent to convert others, and the celebration of non-Muslim holidays is banned. In these countries, as well as in Egypt and Sudan, converts to Christianity are sentenced to death. Jews are not even allowed to visit Saudi Arabia, let alone settle there and practise their faith freely. The situation for the Baha’i community in Iran is even worse, amounting to an outright ban on the entire religion and a resulting persecution of its adherents.

All that being the case, however, it remains true that two wrongs do not make a right. What ideally should be happening is the introduction of the religious toleration and equality that prevails in the Western democracies to Islamic world. With the Swiss referendum result, the opposite has happened. In an ill-considered backlash against perceived Islamist totalitarianism, Saudi-style religious intolerance has instead been re-introduced in one of the world’s oldest democracies. Whether this will prove to be no more than a knee-jerk aberration or the harbinger of an altogether more dangerous process of state-sanctioned xenophobia remains to be seen.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.