NEWS - Archive November 2009

Swiss referendum on Minarets


8/12/2009- Nicolas Sarkozy has deplored the “excessive” French media and political reaction to the Swiss minaret ban, in an opinion piece for Le Monde newspaper. The French president said he was “stupefied” by the response and wrote that instead of condemning the Swiss for the vote outcome, it was important to understand “what it intended to express and what so many people in Europe feel, including the French”. Sarkozy said he was convinced a yes or no response to such issues could only lead to “painful misunderstandings, a feeling of injustice” over a problem that could be resolved on a “case by case basis with respect for the convictions and beliefs of everyone”. The yes vote was not a barrier to freedom of religion or conscience, he argued, while paying tribute to the Swiss system of direct democracy. “No one – and no more so than Switzerland – would dream of questioning these fundamental freedoms,” wrote Sarkozy in the piece published on Tuesday. He said he would not say no to minarets in France but cautioned that in such a secular country religious adherents should “refrain from all ostentation or provocation” of religious practices. Muslims should recognise France’s Christian tradition, he said, adding that anything that resembled a challenge to this heritage “would condemn to failure the very necessary establishment of Islam in France”.



3/12/2009- In an interview with, the Oxford University professor said Muslims should also see the decision by 57.5 per cent of Swiss voters to ban minarets as a wake-up call. Muslims should change their attitude and language and become “more responsible”. What’s your view on the Swiss vote to ban minarets?
Tariq Ramadan: The reaction of the Swiss is very interesting. Many analysts focus just on the symbolic nature of the minaret ban but do not address the core concern. It’s obvious that the real issue in this referendum is Islam and the presence of Muslim immigrants in Switzerland. The big problem is the new visibility of Muslims; this increasingly visible presence is what Europeans in general do not accept. What is the main reason for this rejection by Swiss voters?
T.R.: The main factor for the apprehension and rejection is economic globalisation and the fear it imposes on people. I believe this is key to understanding the current European identity crisis. Many European countries seem to have problems with Muslim immigration…
T.R.: The rejection of Islam and Arab-Muslim immigration has different aspects to it in Europe, depending on a country’s particular interests. The French talk about the wearing of the veil in schools, the Dutch focus on intolerance towards homosexuals and for the Swiss it’s the minarets. Spain is also involved as the People's Party treats Muslims as foreigners and unacceptable. And let’s not forget that Pope Benedict XVI constantly recalls Europe’s Latin and Greek roots, while forgetting the important role of Islam. Are you surprised by the size of the Swiss vote, especially as the government and most political parties clearly called for the initiative to be rejected?
T.R.: I wasn’t that surprised. The message by politicians is not neutral or favourable to Muslims. The problem is that the major democratic political parties trail behind right-wing populist movements, which really dictate the political agenda. The other parties react where possible, while faced with this fait accompli. Are you also referring to parties on the left of the political spectrum?
T.R.: When talking about Islam the more progressive parties always include the word "but”. They therefore make people think Islam is, by definition, a source of conflict. Politicians almost always say "…but we are against female circumcision” or “…but we are against separate swimming pools” or "…but we are against forced marriages”. And the same goes for other issues. What’s your view on the claim by various observers that Swiss feminists and left-of-centre voters gave unexpected support to the minaret initiative?
T.R.: It’s true. Even people who consider themselves progressive today vote against Muslims, and I find that very disturbing. I think the real danger is not the right, but the way right-wing ideas have been adopted by the traditional political parties. In France something significant has happened: it has been shown that the [right-wing] National Front (FN)’s theories can be accepted by up to 73 per cent of voters, provided they don’t know the same ideas come from the FN. In other words, the same idea in the mouth of FN parliamentarian Marie Le Pen is approved by only 20 per cent of voters, but when uttered by other politicians it can reach up to 73 per cent. What should Muslims be doing now after this vote?
T.R.: I think it’s essential that there is a change of attitude among Muslims - a change in their discourse and far-reaching self-analysis. I think what's happening in Switzerland is a wake-up call for us, which forces us to become more responsible and active. Should Switzerland be preparing itself for a similar crisis to the Mohammed cartoons affair in 2005-2006?
T.R.: I don’t think Switzerland should fear a backlash by the Arab-Muslim world. The Mohammed cartoons affair was very different because it attacked the very foundations of the religion. This is not the case with the minarets, which are not essential to practising religion or prayer.



A country says no to more than minarets
By Anne Applebaum

8/12/2009- A few weeks ago, I found myself walking through a Swiss village -- okay, it was really a Geneva suburb -- called Nyon. Still, it looked like a village: There was a castle on the hill, and I could see some Roman ruins. There were a few shops and a nice view of the lake. There was no mosque to be seen. There were no women wearing burqas in the carefully landscaped city park. What is true of Nyon is true of most of Switzerland, a nation in which there are very few mosques -- no more than 150 in the whole country, apparently, including tiny "prayer rooms" -- virtually no burqas and hardly any headscarves. The vast majority of Switzerland's 400,000 Muslims are from Turkey and Kosovo, and women from these countries generally do not follow the conservative dress codes commonly seen in places such as Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, people in places just like Nyon recently voted decisively -- 57.5 percent -- in favor of a referendum that will ban the construction of minarets on mosques throughout Switzerland. This decision has been interpreted across Europe, and particularly in the United States, as evidence of Swiss bigotry and rising religious intolerance. But it was not -- or at least not entirely. More important, it was evidence of fear, though not fear of "foreigners" or "outsiders" as such.

There is very little evidence that separatist, politically extreme Islam is growing rapidly in Switzerland. The Swiss, however, read newspapers and watch television. And in recent years separatist and politically extreme forms of Islam have emerged in every European country with a large Muslim population: Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, Sweden. In all of these countries there have been court cases and scandals concerning forced marriage, female circumcision and honor killings. There have been terrorist incidents, too: Think of the London Tube bombings, the Spanish train bombs, the murder of Dutch film director Theo van Gogh. Remember that the Sept. 11 pilots came from Hamburg. There are many explanations for this phenomenon (the best is found in Christopher Caldwell's recent book, "Reflections on the Revolution in Europe"), but, to put it very crudely, they boil down to one thing: Because of mistakes made by Europeans and by the Muslim immigrants who live beside them, the two groups have, over the past several decades, failed to integrate. Two or even three generations after their arrival, some European Muslims still live in separate communities. They often go to separate schools. And a small but vocal minority openly refuses to respect the laws and customs of their adopted countries.

No European government has found a way to deal with this phenomenon. Those that have tried often find themselves running up against their own civil rights and legal traditions. The Danes, determined to limit the number of foreign spouses entering Denmark through arranged marriages, decided that they had no choice but to make it more difficult for all Danes to marry foreigners. The French, realizing that the headscarf had become a symbol of political affiliation in some French schools, found themselves limiting the rights of all students to wear religious clothing, including yarmulkes, to school. There is, therefore, nothing especially Swiss, or especially isolationist, about the recent referendum result. A similar question, put in a similar way, might well have led to a similar result anywhere in Europe. In fact, fear of Islamist extremism shapes all European politics far more than anyone ever acknowledges. The growth of the "far right" parties in the recent past is almost always connected to fear of Islamist extremism. The opposition to Turkish membership in the European Union -- which would mean that Turks could eventually work freely in any member state -- stems from the same set of fears, though almost no one ever says this.

The referendum on the construction of minarets is no different. No one quite says what the real issue is, but everybody knows: As grotesquely unfair as a referendum to ban minarets may have been to hundreds of thousands of ordinary, well-integrated Muslims, I have no doubt that the Swiss voted in favor primarily because they don't have much Islamic extremism -- and they don't want any.
The Washington Post



8/12/2009- Is it Islamophobia, ignorance, a crisis of European identity, a problem of a poorly integrated minority community, or something of all of these? According to an opinion poll published in today’s Le Soir , one of Belgium’s leading newspapers, some 59.3 per cent of Belgians support a ban on the construction of new minarets in their country. This is about 2 per cent more than the proportion of Swiss who voted in a referendum last month to halt the building of new minarets. The Belgian survey cannot lay claim to pinpoint accuracy. It was conducted by iVOX, an online pollster, which estimates the margin of error at 3.1 per cent. Nevertheless, the outcome doesn’t come as a surprise. Like Switzerland, Belgium has a small but steadily growing Muslim population - and not many minarets. To be precise, there are 328 mosques in Belgium but only 16 minarets. Let me assure you, the skylines of Brussels, Ghent and Namur do not look anything like the skylines of Mecca or Istanbul. I would wager that most of the Belgians who spoke out in the opinion poll against new minarets have never seen a minaret in their neighbourhood. Interestingly, a similar survey conducted in France just after the Swiss referendum pointed to a somewhat lower level of hostility to Islam. The poll in Le Figaro said 41 per cent of those questioned were opposed to new minarets in France. A separate poll suggested that a majority of French people did not think a referendum on banning new minarets was a good idea. So common sense has not entirely deserted the people of Europe. But as we see with the increasing difficulties facing Turkey’s European Union membership negotiations, questions of culture, identity and Christianity in opposition to Islam are starting to fill the vacuum in European politics created by the collapse of secular ideologies and allegiances such as socialism and anti-communism. Are there any politicians in Europe courageous enough to point out what a dangerous course this risks becoming?
The Financial Times



7/12/2009- Swiss voters may have been taking aim at Islam, but Jewish and Catholic leaders are among those crying foul. Jewish organizations have joined Muslims, the Vatican and other groups in warning that a Swiss referendum banning the construction of mosque minarets could fuel hatred, jeopardize religious freedom and further polarize an already divided society. “Discriminatory laws like a ban on minarets are likely to alienate rather than ease integration,” the Board of Deputies of British Jews said in a statement following the Nov. 29 vote. “They also give succor to the unacceptable politics of unlimited hate being peddled around Europe by right-wing extremists.” France’s chief rabbi also criticized the vote, as did two influential U.S. Jewish organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee. Both the Swiss government and Switzerland's Jewish community had strongly opposed the initiative. Called by the far-right Swiss People's Party -- the country's largest political party -- the referendum won the support of nearly 58 percent of voters. The result, which stunned many observers, mandates a constitutional ban on the construction of minarets, or prayer towers, on newly built mosques. The referendum is the latest round in a series of ongoing debates and controversies over how to deal with a growing Muslim population in Europe. In France, there have been sharp debates over whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear veils in public schools. And in the past few years, anti-immigrant protesters have demonstrated against the building of mosques in Germany, Italy and elsewhere in Western Europe.

Posters backing the Swiss referendum had blatantly played on fears of Islamist extremism. Some showed a sinister, black-veiled figure in front of black minarets arrayed to look like missiles rising out of a Swiss flag. Martin Baltisser, the general secretary of the Swiss People's Party, told the BBC, "This was a vote against minarets as symbols of Islamic power." About 400,000 Muslims live in Switzerland in a population of 7.5 million. Four mosques in the country have minarets. Many Muslims in Switzerland are refugees from the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. During those wars, Orthodox Serb and Catholic Croat fighters deliberately targeted hundreds of mosques for destruction. In a joint statement ahead of the vote, the two main Swiss Jewish umbrella groups opposed the measure. "Precisely because the Jewish community has firsthand experience of discrimination, it is committed to active opposition to discrimination and to action in favor of religious freedom and peaceful relations between the religions," the two Swiss Jewish groups declared. Swiss Jewry, the statement said, "takes seriously the fears of the population that extremist ideas could be disseminated in Switzerland. But banning minarets is no solution -- it only creates in Muslims in Switzerland a sense of alienation and discrimination." The results of the referendum drew widespread criticism from the Vatican, Muslim leaders, the United Nations and other political and religious bodies around the world. Jewish criticism focused on concern that the crackdown on Muslims could foster extremism and harm efforts to integrate Muslim communities. But Jewish leaders also warned of possible repercussions for Jews and other minorities.

“For the Swiss People’s Party, as for all far-right parties in Europe, any group that is different in terms of its appearance or its language or its cultural or religious traditions is regarded as a target," said David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. "We stand firmly against these rabble-rousing politics in the name of pluralism and democracy.” The Anti-Defamation League slammed the referendum as "a populist political campaign of religious intolerance." “This is not the first time a Swiss popular vote has been used to promote religious intolerance," the ADL said in a statement. "A century ago, a Swiss referendum banned Jewish ritual slaughter in an attempt to drive out its Jewish population. We share the … concern that those who initiated the anti-minaret campaign could try to further erode religious freedom through similar means." France's Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim called on leaders of "all religions" to work for "dialogue and openness." Bernhiem and others recalled that until Jews were granted civil rights, European rulers often had imposed bans or regulations on the size or visibility of synagogues, frequently forbidding synagogues to stand taller than local churches. "In many buildings in Budapest you find prayer rooms or synagogues hidden away in courtyards -- you can't see them from the outside," said Mircea Cernov, who heads Haver, a foundation in the Hungarian capital that promotes education and dialogue between Jews and non-Jews. Cernov joined Bernheim in calling for dialogue rather than legal restrictions to tackle the issue of the growing Muslim presence in Europe. "The moment something is a formal restriction, debate and critical response to the issue is closed," Cernov said. "This can lead in a very short time to a polarization or radicalization of the question." Philip Carmel, spokesman for the Conference of European Rabbis, also stressed the need for dialogue rather than restrictions. He said the group's rabbis at their recent conference in Moscow had condemned the posters supporting the referendum. "It is not by banning minarets that one combats Islamic fundamentalism in Europe,” Carmel said, “but by engaging in serious dialogue with moderate forces within Islam to build a united and democratic Europe."
JTA News



Statement by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance on the ban of the construction of minarets in Switzerland

1/12/2009- The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) wishes to express its deep concern about the results of the Swiss popular initiative which approved the inclusion, in the Federal Constitution, of a new provision banning the construction of minarets. In its report on Switzerland published on 15 September 2009, ECRI clearly regretted that “an initiative that infringes human rights can be put to vote”. ECRI added that it “very much hoped that it would be rejected”.

The figure of 57,5% in favour of the ban, and the fact that the Federal Council’s and other key Swiss stakeholders’ call to vote against went unheeded, are difficult to reconcile with the efforts made to combat prejudice and discrimination in the country over the last years. This vote will result in discrimination against Muslims and infringe their freedom of religion. As ECRI has warned in its report, this risks creating further stigmatisation and racist prejudice against persons belonging to the Muslim community. ECRI calls on the Swiss authorities to study carefully the consequences of this vote and do their utmost to find solutions that are in keeping with international human rights law. In the meantime, ECRI emphasises the urgent need for the Swiss authorities to follow-up on its recommendation “to pursue their efforts and dialogue with Muslim representatives”.
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance



2/12/2009- The European Union of Jewish Students has a long and proud history of standing up against all forms of religious discrimination. In the light of the decision taken by Swiss voters to ban minarets, EUJS feels it cannot remain silent. EUJS condemns the vote, and the fact that this matter was put to the Swiss voters in the first place. The right to religious freedom is enshrined in every democratic system and this freedom cannot be curtailed in an inclusive and free Europe. EUJS believes that all religious communities, regardless of faith, should have the right and freedom to practice their religion without fear or discrimination. We are glad to see that so many people and governments, including Muslim and Jewish communities as well as the Vatican and the United Nations have stepped forward to speak out on this important issue. EUJS calls on the Swiss government to increase religious dialogue and understanding between communities, to ensure that no community faces the fear of discrimination and denial of rights faced by the country's Muslim community in light of this vote. EUJS urges Swiss politicians and other leaders at the federal, cantonal and local level, as well as the United Nations, the European Union, the Council of Europe and other governments and organisations, to stand up for the dignity of every individual in Europe and the world, and for the safeguarding of fundamental human rights as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European convention on Human Rights. EUJS, representing over 200,000 Jewish students in 34 European countries , stands firm in this fight as a part of civil society in Europe.
The European Union of Jewish Students



By Joëlle Fiss, Pennoyer Fellow, Fighting Discrimination Program Human Rights First

2/12/2009- To the utter consternation of the Swiss government, most political parties, non-governmental organizations, journalists, pollsters -- and even the Vatican, 57.5% of the Swiss population voted in a nationwide referendum last Sunday (29 November) to ban the construction of minarets on mosques in Switzerland. The outcome of the referendum has also drawn international criticism. The irony is, of course, that there are only four mosques with minarets in Switzerland. Clearly, this is not a conversation about local architectural planning or the preservation of landscapes, but it touches a deeper, raw nerve. Switzerland is the first European country to ban the construction of minarets, adding an extra layer of discomfort to Europe's already tense relations with its Muslim citizens. Politically, the vote is embarrassing. Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf had warned against this referendum. Diplomatically, it will undoubtedly damage Switzerland's image abroad. But let's focus on how this result creates some peculiar challenges from a legal perspective.

Is the decision to ban the construction of minarets on mosques legal?
Legal experts are now questioning whether the ban conforms to international law, breaching the right to freedom of religion. This decision was adopted through a popular referendum, as a result of Switzerland's political system of direct democracy. Here's where it gets tricky: what do you do when a decision taken democratically might violate international law? Switzerland has ratified international treaties reaffirming the right to non-discrimination on the grounds of religion, in article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the European Convention of Human Rights (Article 9). The United Nations and the Council of Europe have expressed outright concern. Swiss politicians are exploring the option of bringing this case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) but it is not clear that the Court would take the case. Before being able to seize the court, the plaignants must have exhausted the grounds for appeal in their country. However, in Switzerland, it is not possible to seize the federal court against the result a popular vote. If a legal solution is found to this obstacle and the case is brought to the ECHR, it is still not clear what the outcome would be given recent decisions to permit restrictions of the practice of religion in the name of preserving the secular character of the state. In 2005, in the Leyla Sahin v Turkey case, the ECHR ruled that Turkey was authorized to ban Islamic headscarves in universities, rejecting an appeal by a Turkish woman who argued that the state ban violated her rights. The ruling was reaffirmed in 2009 when the ECHR ruled in favor of a French school that expelled two Muslim girls for refusing to remove their headscarves for physical education classes.

Beyond the legal question, a societal issue
Beyond the legal question, the vote reflects the larger societal issue of the growing fear of "the other" and the rise of extremist views in Europe. For example, the campaign triggered hate speech against Muslims. Posters displayed portraits of women in chadors next to wrecked Swiss flags covered by missile-looking minarets. Muslims were associated to danger. Such stereotyping can lead to a climate of increased racism. If the climate of hatred rises, then racist violence and hate crimes tend to ascend too. Left unchallenged, fears and assumptions could well lead to indifference to abuses committed against members of minority groups or, worse still, to impunity for violent hate crimes committed against them. Read Human Rights First's report card on Swiss government monitoring, reporting, and criminal law on hate crime.

To some extent, the damage is done, whether the legal question will be resolved or not. The results of the referendum have produced a domino effect: extremist political parties in Belgium and the Netherlands have announced their wish to table similar proposals in their countries. The revisionist Front National party from France has praised the result. This will only fuel the hateful discourse of some and weaken the sense of security for many bewildered Muslims. There is a pattern of racially and religiously motivated violence against Muslims-- and those perceived to be Muslims-- in many parts of Europe and North America, yet few governments have the tools to address this adequately. Most states collect insufficient data on anti-Muslim hate crimes and there is a need to record more cases to detect the trends to tackle the problem. In its 2008 Hate Crime Survey, Human Rights First reported many cases of violence, including assaults on individuals and attacks on places of worship and cemeteries. These occurred in many countries, including the United States, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Kosovo, the Russian Federation, Serbia and the United Kingdom. You read more about it here
The Huffington Post



2/12/2009- UNITED for Intercultural Action wants to express its concerns and deep regret on the decision of the Swiss referendum voters to ban the construction of new minarets in Switzerland. 57% had casted the vote for this choice promoted by the right wing extremist Swiss People's Party (SVP). The way in which this right-wing populist campaign has been conducted was based on unfair prejudice against the Swiss Muslim community, which ultimately it is an attack on social cohesion in Switzerland. The manipulating campaign around this shameful vote utilised fears and patriotism of the Swiss people to mobilise voters: on the campaign poster a black veiled Muslim woman stands in front of the red an white Swiss flag, which is perforated by a forest of minarets that look like missiles. The same political party gained 29% of the votes in the last federal elections 2007. In that time they also used a racist poster showing three white sheep kicking out a black one against the background of the Swiss flag, labeled with the slogan: 'For more Security'. That was an attempt to appeal to the lowest fears and emotions of the people as they recently did again in the referendum campaign against minarets. There is no evidence of a radical Islam in Switzerland, however this discriminating vote could create a problem where there was not one before. Hatred and Extremism cannot be fought with hatred and intolerance. Besides complicated issues such as immigration, diversity and religious cohesion cannot be explained by simple answers as racist populism is doing in Switzerland and other European countries. European democratic civil society, engaged in the fight against intolerance, must not be quite in front of such attack against our common values of tolerance, diversity, freedom of religion and respect for human dignity. Therefore, UNITED for Intercultural Action calls to challenge the ban of minarets in Switzerland by legal and democratic means.
UNITED for Intercultural Action



30/11/2009- The Swiss claim passivity, diversity and tolerance as founding values. They have grown rich through trade and banking the world's money. They give shelter to wealthy migrants seeking to escape taxes at home. Their country even houses the offices of many international organisations, including large parts of the UN. But yesterday the Swiss pulled aside their veneer of internationalism, voting heavily in favour of a referendum motion that will change the Swiss constitution to ban the building of minarets. The result – on a 53% turnout – should shame Switzerland and worry Europe. Although the vote was ostensibly about minarets, of which there are only four in the whole country, and not even mosques, which can still be built, voters were really being lured to express their views on religion and race. Some things about the campaign were specifically Swiss, principally an Alpine distrust of outsiders which lapsed into racism. No other European country would have accepted with relative equanimity a poster campaign displaying a black-veiled Muslim woman and a forest of missile-like minarets imposed on the pure red and white of the Swiss flag. In Switzerland this monstrosity was endorsed by the country's largest party, although opposed by the rest. The Swiss People's party has tried the trick before, thriving in the 2007 federal election on the back of an even more explicit poster showing three white sheep, standing on the red background of the Swiss flag, kicking out a fourth black one, above the slogan "for more security". No one, in the context of the far right, should mistake the provocative nature of a campaign fought in the Nazi colours of red, black and white.

Switzerland will suffer as a result of yesterday's vote, its cherished national brand tarnished. But it is too easy to blame the Swiss alone. Many of the things that drove yesterday's vote – growing opposition to migration, the rise of the far right, widespread hatred and fear of Islam – apply just as much to other European countries, including Britain. This raises an uncomfortable possibility. Was yesterday's result a product of Swiss exceptionalism, or simply the chance existence in Switzerland of a political system that allows popular referendums? Can we be sure that the people of Austria, France, Britain or the Netherlands would have voted differently, if given the chance? All European countries find the politics of migration painful. Even the new EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, once attacked Turkey's application to join the EU, as it threatened "fundamental values of Christianity". Hatred lies just beneath the harmony. Politicians who provoke it threaten to cause terrible harm.
Comment is free - Guardian


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