Sunday, November 29, 2009

Islam in Switzerland

In a vote, the far right in Switzerland won a referendum to ban the construction of new minarets in the (notoriously?) neutral country. The ban itself was opposed by the current government, but the NYTimes reports...

The referendum, which passed with a clear majority of 57.5 percent of the voters and in 22 of Switzerland’s 25 cantons, was a victory for the right. The vote against was 42.5 percent. Because the ban gained a majority of votes and passed in a majority of the cantons, it will be added to the Constitution.

The Swiss Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the rightist Swiss People’s Party, or S.V.P., and a small religious party had proposed inserting a single sentence banning the construction of minarets, leading to the referendum.

The Swiss government said it would respect the vote and sought to reassure the Muslim population — mostly immigrants from other parts of Europe, like Kosovo and Turkey — that the minaret ban was “not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture.”

I am ignorant of much of the Swiss system of governance, but would not a ban on the construction of new minarets contradict the Swiss constitution's guarantee of the freedom of religion? Can a referendum that leads to a constitutional amendment be instituted if itself contradicts other aspects of the constitution? In short, can an amendment to the constitution be ruled unconstitutional?

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.

“Most painful for us is the not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote,” said Farhad Afshar, who runs the Coordination of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland. “Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community.”

This vote--alongside France's problems with Muslim clothing--reflects growing fears of militant Islamic groups, which do not represent the majority of Muslims in Europe. These campaigns play upon these fears, and do not reflect a careful, considered approach to religious freedom. If anything, such proposals could create resentment among those it oppresses, and degrades the quality of freedom in such countries for everyone.

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