Switzerland debates Islam and minarets

The debate over the integration of the Muslim community into Swiss society is not new and has long been the subject of considerable political tension. The most recent controversy is no different and has already fuelled a heated discussion on whether the construction of minarets in Switzerland should be banned. The Democratic Union of the Centre (UDC, also known as the Swiss People’s Party), a major Swiss political party and forerunner of Swiss conservatism, first initiated the debate. The UDC quickly gathered the requisite 100,000 signatures necessary for a national referendum scheduled for the fall of 2009. It is worthwhile to note that Switzerland has only four minarets throughout the country even though Islam is the country’s second largest religion after Christianity. The UDC is actively mobilizing public opinion against what it labels the “Islamization” of Switzerland, claiming that the percentage of Muslims – 5 percent – has grown too rapidly since the 1980s. But people have been speaking out against this view. Several experts and political leaders have questioned the legality and compliance of the referendum initiative with the Swiss Constitution and the European Charter of Human Rights (ECHR). According to them, the insertion in the Constitution of an article prohibiting the building of new minarets would be tantamount to encroaching on other fundamental rights also guaranteed by the same federal Constitution, such as equality before the law (Article 8); freedom of belief and conscience (Article 15); guarantee of property ownership (Article 26); the principle of proportionality (Article 5); adherence to international law (Article 5); and prohibition of discrimination (Article 8). Mir Cengic reports.