Indeed, the Muslim population in Switzerland has more than quintupled since 1980, and now numbers about 400,000, or roughly 5 percent of the population. Most Muslims living in Switzerland are of Turkish or Balkan origin, with a small minority from the Arab world. Many of them are second and third generation immigrants who are now firmly establishing themselves in Switzerland.
The new Muslim demographic reality is raising tensions across large parts of Swiss society, especially as conservative Muslims become more assertive in their demands for greater recognition of their faith.
In one case, for example, Muslim parents recently won a lawsuit demanding that they be allowed to dress their children in full-body bathing suits dubbed “burkinis” during co-ed swimming lessons. In another case, a group of Swiss supermarkets created a stir by banning Muslim employees from wearing headscarves. And in August 2009, the Swiss basketball association told a Muslim player she could not wear a headscarf during league games.
Similar controversies over the role of Islam in European society and how to reconcile Western values with a growing immigrant population are playing themselves out with increasing frequency in towns and cities across the continent.
But the disputes over mosque- and minaret-building, which are currently raging in Austria, Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, are far more polemical.
Critics fear that mosques, which are becoming an increasingly prominent feature of the European landscape, are facilitating the establishment of a completely parallel Muslim society, one that is especially welcoming to Islamic fundamentalists. Even some voices on the political left, which has viewed the construction of mosques as symbols of Europe’s post-Christian sophistication and open-mindedness, are beginning to voice concerns that their proliferation is a sign of failing integration.
But others accuse groups like the SVP of going too far. As part of its campaign, for example, the SVP published a controversial poster showing the Swiss flag with a woman in a complete face veil standing on it, surrounded by minarets that resemble missiles. Some Swiss cities refused to permit distribution of the posters on the grounds that they incited racism and hatred of Muslims, while others allowed them on freedom-of-expression grounds.
Fearful of a radicalization of Muslims at home and reprisals against Swiss interests abroad, the Swiss government has come out strongly against the minaret referendum. Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, a former member of SVP, says the ban would violate the Swiss constitution, which guarantees the freedom of belief and worship for all citizens without exception. And Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey says a “yes” vote “could make Switzerland a target for Islamic terrorism.”
Swiss businesses, many with large interests in Muslim countries, have also come out against the referendum. They are keen to avoid a boycott similar to the one that hit Denmark in 2005 following a controversy over newspaper cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.
In the end, even if Swiss voters reject the anti-minaret referendum, the SVP will still be able to claim victory for having drawn the public’s attention to the limits of multiculturalism. Indeed, Swiss voters across the political spectrum seem to agree that Muslim immigrants need to be better assimilated and socially integrated. They are also beginning to understand that the debate about Islam in Switzerland (and Europe) is just beginning.