Switzerland: Swiss Rightwingers challenge minarets as “Islamist” threat

Right-wing politicians from Switzerland’s largest political party on Thursday launched a campaign for a referendum to ban the construction of minarets on mosques, claiming they symbolized an Islamist bid for power. The group, including more than half of the Swiss People’s Party’s (SVP) parliamentarians, said in a statement that a ban would help stop “attempts by Islamist circles to impose a legal system based on the sharia in Switzerland.” Some of the politicians said they did not oppose mosques or Muslims’ right to worship. The Swiss constitution guarantees religious freedoms and the legality of the initiative was questioned by one former judge. Parliamentarian Oskar Freysinger branded minarets “lighthouses of jihad” while his colleague Ulrich Schlueer claimed that they were “Islamist buildings with an imperialist connotation.” Schlueer said minarets were not a religious symbol but a sign of a “political-religious bid for power.” To trigger a national referendum, campaigners must collect 100,000 signatures. They hope to introduce a constitutional amendment to the article that upholds peace between members of religious communities-explicitly forbidding the construction of minarets. Swiss Roman Catholic bishops dealing with relations with Muslims said in a statement that they opposed the campaign for a blanket ban on minarets. Supporters of the anti-minaret intitiative include 36 of the SVP’s 63 parliamentarians and two from a small hard right party. The campaign will also coincide with general elections in October. The populist SVP surged to the largest single share of the vote in the 2003 elections, 26 percent, after a campaign focused on curbing immigration. There are about 311,000 Muslims among the 7.5 million strong Swiss population, according to official statistics. Most of them are originally from the Balkans.

Muslim veils ‘should be allowed in court’

The wearing of the Muslim veil in court was backed by new official guidelines today. Senior judges who examined whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear the full facial covering, known as the niqab, said it should be decided on a case-by-case basis. Muslim women should be permitted to wear the garment providing it did not interfere with the administration of justice, the Judicial Studies Board’s Equal Treatment Advisory Committee said. The guidance follows a case at an immigration court in Stoke-on-Trent last November where the judge, George Glossop, ordered an adjournment because he was having difficulty hearing legal executive Shabnam Mughal. The guidelines said: Each situation should be considered individually in order to find the best solution in each case. Forcing a woman to choose between participating in a court case or removing the veil could have a significant impact on that woman’s sense of dignity, it added, and could serve to exclude and marginalise her. Committee chairwoman Mrs Justice Cox said: At the heart of our guidance is the principle that each situation should be considered individually in order to find the best solution in each case. We respect the right for Muslim women to choose to wear the niqab as part of their religious beliefs, although the interests of justice remain paramount. If a person’s face is almost fully covered, a judge may have to consider if any steps are required to ensure effective participation and a fair hearing – both for the woman wearing a niqab and for other parties in the proceedings. This is not an issue that lends itself to a prescriptive approach – we have drawn on a wealth of cases that demonstrate that, and we have drawn up guidance for different court personnel and parties. If the wearer is appearing as a victim, it should not be automatically assumed that the niqab would create a problem, the guidelines said. Nor should it ever be assumed without good reason that it is inappropriate for a woman to give evidence in court wearing the full veil, it added. If a judge felt it necessary to ask a victim to remove her veil, he or she should consider the request carefully, and be thoughtful and sensitive. The courtroom could even be cleared of anyone not directly involved in the case for her to proceed with her evidence, it said. Asking a witness or defendant to remove the garment may be appropriate but careful thought should be given to any such request, the guidelines said. Regarding a Muslim woman appearing as a barrister, solicitor or other advocate, judges should assume they are entitled to wear the veil, it went on. There are few instances where an advocate or representative appearing in a niqab would be likely to present any real issue, it said. Just as in any case where a judge might have difficulty in hearing any party, witness or advocate, sensitively inquiring whether they can speak any louder or providing other means of amplification should suffice and such measures should be considered with the advocate before asking her to remove her veil. Regarding jurors in niqabs, a judge may wish to consider excusing her if a challenge is made by one of the parties, it said, providing there is a genuine basis for the objection. The guidelines come after widespread concern over the wearing of the niqab in schools – by both children and staff – as well as in other areas. In February, a 12-year-old Muslim girl who wanted to wear a full-face veil in class lost her legal battle when a High Court judge dismissed a challenge to her school’s uniform policy. Mr Justice Silber rejected her claim that the school in Buckinghamshire had interfered with her right to freedom of religion under the Human Rights Convention.

Full-face veil ’caused pupil mix-up’

A new headteacher who noted that one of her sixth form girls was wearing a Muslim full-face veil did not realise there were two of them – because she did not see them together. In evidence to the High Court, the headteacher said that, although she considered the niqab veil was a breach of uniform policy, she decided that “the girl” should be allowed to continue wearing it because the previous head had permitted it. “I did not, in fact, realise that there was a second girl (her sister), also in the sixth form, who also dressed in an identical, full jilbab (long dress) and niqab because I never saw them together,” she said. The girls eventually left the Buckinghamshire school and it was not until their younger sister became a pupil and also started wearing the veil that the updated uniform policy was enforced. She and her parents were told the niqab was not acceptable. That decision is now under challenge in court. Mr Justice Silber is being asked by the 12-year-old and her father to rule the ban on her wearing the niqab was irrational, in the light of the way her sisters’ wishes had been accommodated, and in breach of her human right to freedom of “thought, conscience and religion”. For legal reasons, neither the girl, referred to as X, nor the school, a top girls’ grammar, nor its headteacher can be identified. The niqab veil covers all of the face except the eyes. About 120 of the school’s 1,300-plus pupils are Muslims, and up to 60 of them wear the hijab headscarf. X is the only pupil demanding the right to wear the full-face veil when men are likely to be present. The girl is attending a different school which permits the niqab, but she wants to go back to the grammar. The headteacher, who took over at the school in September 2002, stated: “I believe that if the niqab becomes an accepted part of school uniform attire there may well be pressure brought to bear on other Muslim girls to wear one, either from the children’s families or from their friends at school.” For a girl to conceal her face was contrary to the ethos of the school. “As a girls’ school for over 100 years, we are very conscious of our duty to educate girls to regard themselves as equals to men and to gain the self-confidence to live and work in British and international society on the same level as men,” she said. She pointed out that being able to see facial expressions was a key component of effective classroom interaction; for instance, was a pupil paying attention or distressed or enthusiastic? An assessment made of X in the light of her shy, quiet and reserved manner emphasised the need for her to be able to communicate freely with her teachers and peers. The headteacher also spoke of her duty to ensure the safety of her pupils. “If a stranger is on site, then it is simple to approach and ask them (about) their business. “However, if pupils wore the niqab, then identifying those on site becomes difficult and it would not be beyond the realms of possibility for an unwelcome person wishing to move incognito to wear a niqab herself. “Of course it would be very difficult for a male teacher to challenge somebody wearing a niqab as the very reason it is being worn is to avoid being seen by the opposite sex.” The headteacher stressed that X had not been excluded from the school, which wanted her to return. She had been kept from school either at her own request or on instruction of her parents. An alternative school – Burnham Grammar, 12 miles from the girl’s home, where the niqab was allowed – was able to offer her a place. Transport would be provided. The girl’s lawyers argue that the niqab is simply an addition to school uniform – like a skullcap or turban – and that, in an emergency, a girl would simply remove it and show her face. The judge reserved judgment to a later date.

Muslim Media Coverage Scrutinized

The way that the British news media covers Muslim stories is challenging some of its most basic editorial values. Many Muslims feel that all British news outlets have a liberal, anti-Muslim slant, and as a result turn to outside news outlets such as al-Jazeera. But journalists who report on political Islam say that there is an equal danger in neglecting to challenge radical Islamist views. The role of the news media, they say, is to pose the difficult questions. They cannot back down from this responsibility just to maintain an appearance of total cultural sensitivity. What would help mutual understanding would be if more Muslims worked in the news media, and if a wider range of Muslims, not just extremists, sought and were given a voice in newspapers and broadcast news.

Mosque to be Built on Dairy Site

Plans to build a mosque on the site of a Windsor dairy will go forward after the Borough of Windsor decided not to appeal the ruling of the government planning inspector in favor of the Islamic center. Local councillors were disappointed at the advice to not challenge the appeal, but they are now working with planning officers to regulate usage of the building, including a ban on weddings, celebrations, and extended hours of operation. Despite the racially motivated violence that took place at the site in October, councillors said that good community relations could be maintained if Medina Dairy respected that the property was in a long-standing residential area.

North Rhine/Westphalia Wants to Improve Integration

The central challenge today is: integration by education, explained North-Rhine/Westphalia Prime Minister Juergen Ruettgers (CDU). Earlier, the cabinet approved a twenty-point “plan of action on integration”. The plan includes the development of an Islamic religious curriculum, in co-operation with Muslim organisations, to be taught in German by trained religious teachers and falling under the official school supervision system. The curriculum will be tested with pilot projects in Cologne and Duisburg. The plan of actions is also North-Rhine/Westphalia’s preparation for the forthcoming integration summit of the Federal Government on 14 July.

Muslims in Western Europe After 9/11

The principal aim of this report is to highlight the multi-layered levels of discrimination encountered by Muslims. This phenomenon cannot simply be subsumed into the term Islamophobia. Indeed, the term can be misleading, as it presupposes the pre-eminence of religious discrimination when other forms of discrimination (such as racial or class) may be more relevant. We therefore intend to use the term Islamophobia as a starting point for analyzing the different dimensions that define the political situation of Muslim minorities in Europe. We will not to take the term for granted by assigning it only one meaning, such as anti-Islamic discourse.

The report is part of WP: Securitization and Religious Divides in Europe