Swiss voters go to the polls on November 29 to decide the fate of a referendum to ban the construction of minarets, the tower-like structures on mosques that are often used to call Muslims to prayer. The initiative is being promoted by the conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which argues that a minaret is a symbol of Islamic intolerance.
The SVP, which also happens to be one of the strongest political parties in Switzerland, says the minaret is really an emblem of war. It describes the minaret as a “symbol of a religious-political claim to power and dominance which threatens — in the name of alleged freedom of religion — the constitutional rights of others.”
To support its position, the SVP cites a famous remark by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once implied that the construction of mosques and minarets is part of a strategy for the Islamization of Europe. The pro-Islamic Erdogan said: “The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the faithful our army.”
The SVP gathered more than the 100,000 signatures needed to call a vote. A recent poll conducted by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation shows that 34 percent of Swiss voters support the ban, while 53 percent oppose it; another 13 percent remain undecided.
The current controversy dates back to 2005, when the Turkish cultural association in Wangen bei Olten, a small town of some 4,500 people in northern Switzerland, applied for a permit to erect a 6-meter (20 feet) high minaret on the roof of its Islamic community center. The project to build the minaret, which was opposed by the majority of local residents, was roundly rejected by the town’s building and planning commission. But the Turkish cultural association appealed the decision, claiming that the local building authorities were motivated by religious bias. The case eventually made its way to the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, which in 2007 ruled that the project could proceed apace. The minaret was finally erected in July 2009.
Up until recently, Muslims living in Switzerland had mostly been keeping a low profile, preferring to practice their religion discretely in nondescript mosques. But over the past several years the number of mosques has mushroomed; there now are some 200 mosques and up to 1,000 prayer rooms dotted around the country. And although only four of those have minarets (plans to build a half-dozen more minarets are currently pending approval), observers say the minarets symbolize the growing self-confidence of Switzerland’s Muslim community.