Swiss minaret ban a setback for Middle East diplomacy

Switzerland recently passed a controversial referendum to ban minarets in the country, provoking uproar, intense debate and even protest. The move is regarded by many as “deeply divisive,” says UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, as well as a major setback for American and European public diplomacy in the Arab world.

Sweden, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union, commented that the United Nations “should reconsider its presence in Geneva,” according to an Associated Press article. “Even if this is Switzerland, it sends a very unfortunate signal to large parts of the rest of the world about attitudes and prejudices in Europe,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on his blog. He continued to observe that the ban is a “poor act of diplomacy” from the Swiss, whose neutrality on globally divisive issues is renowned.

Analysts and commentators are also pointing to the ban as a serious complication for dialogue with Muslims around the world, even among those who are non-practicing, because the minaret is largely seen as a symbol of Arab and Muslim identity.

To provide freedom and the right to life

On request of the great number of media to comment the result of Swiss minaret ban, Dr. Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia, made the following statement:

“It is interesting that Switzerland has chosen the greatest Muslim holiday (Eid al Adha, The Festival of Sacrifice) to demonstrate to Muslims its might, or better said, its impotence in respecting human rights as fundamental postulates of the system of European values. I am not burdened by conspiracy theory, but the interesting thing is that we the native peoples of Europe, Bosnians and Albanians, simultaneously at the time of Eid al Adha, our Festival of Sacrifice, receive the news of being exempt from visa-free travel system in European Union, and that the Swiss on their referendum voted in favour of the ban for minarets,” – said the Bosnian
Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric commenting the recent Swiss referendum. “Having in mind that Bosnian Muslims have the experience of genocide, which is so fresh and so deep in their memory, the issue of minarets in Switzerland is important, but for them it is more important to have secured the right to live in Europe and the right to freedom from fear for the future of their children. Unfortunately, both messages – the first from the Brussels that we are less worthy than our neighbors Serbians, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Croats, and the second that comes these days from Switzerland, that our religious and cultural symbols are undesirable – are
not encouraging and do not speak about Europe in which all humans and all
peoples have equal rights and equal respect. Obviously Europe is, apart from
being in huge economic, also in deep moral crisis. If it is aware of, then Europe instead of sinking deeper into the crisis should see in European Muslims the partners for both economic as well as moral recovery. We hope that Europe will soon realize it and return to its own values of human rights, which by the voted ban on minarets in Switzerland and by denying visa-free travel to only Bosnians and Albanians, its only native Muslim peoples, heavily undermined!’ – stated Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia.”

Turkey debates about the Swiss minaret ban and own religious minorities

In Turkey, the Swiss referendum banning the building of new minarets is perceived as just another example of Islamophobia and discrimination against Muslims. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “This decision is primitive, outdated, and manifestation of a Western understanding.”

Warning that this decision rings alarm bells, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu added “There is an increase in Islamophobia. We will live together everywhere in the globalized world, and we need to develop a new spirit of tolerance.”

The article, however, also highlights the extent to which “a new spirit of tolerance” is needed in Turkey as well. While most people criticized the Swiss vote strongly, some also drew attention to Turkey’s own situation regarding tolerance to religious minorities.

The rights of the non-Muslim minorities in Turkey are regulated to a large extent by the Treaty of Lausanne, which gives reciprocal rights to the Muslim Turkish minority that lives in Greece and Christian Minorities in Turkey, but the article argues that neither the situation in Greece nor the one in Turkey is better than the situation in Switzerland.

Swiss minaret ban discriminates against Muslims, says UN expert Statement of UN Special Rapporteur, Asma Jahangir

An independent United Nations expert on religious freedom today voiced regret at the Swiss vote to ban the construction of new minarets, stating that such a prohibition clearly discriminates against Muslims.

“I have deep concerns at the negative consequences that the outcome of the vote will have on the freedom of religion or belief of members of the Muslim community in Switzerland,” Asma Jahangir, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, stated in a news release.

“Indeed, a ban on minarets amounts to an undue restriction of the freedom to manifest one’s religion and constitutes a clear discrimination against members of the Muslim community in Switzerland,” she added, also noting that the UN Human Rights Committee stated a month ago that such a ban is contrary to the country’s obligations under international human rights law.

“This vote reminds us that no societies are immune to religious intolerance,” stressed Ms. Jahangir, adding that “it is therefore more than ever necessary to continue raising awareness and educating people about religious diversity, enabling all societies to adopt an enlightened and progressive attitude towards the beliefs of other communities.”

Le Monde, Libération and Le Figaro editorials on Sarkozy’s response to the Swiss minaret ban

In his 9 December speech on the Swiss minaret ban, Nicholas Sarkozy has turned the discourse in France to one of national identity and integration, according to this Le Monde editorial.

In particular, Sarkozy redefined French secularism as “the principle of neutrality and not a principle of indifference” toward religious faiths, and called on Muslims to respect the French “social and civic pact”.

He addressed his Muslims “compatriots” specifically, calling for them to respect secularism and assuring a move toward fighting against all discrimination they face.

There are approximately 4000 Catholic religious spaces in the country and 2368 Muslim spaces.

Head of OSCE human rights office expresses concern about outcome of Swiss minaret ban referendum

The director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Ambassador Janez Lenarcic, expressed concern today at the outcome of the referendum held in Switzerland on Sunday on the ban of the construction of minarets.

“A blanket prohibition of minarets is not consistent with OSCE commitments on freedom of religion or belief and the principle of non-discrimination based on religion,” Lenarcic said in Athens, where he will participate in the OSCE Ministerial Council, to be held tomorrow and Wednesday. The referendum, launched by the Swiss People’s Party and the Federal Democratic Union, was backed by 57.5 percent of voters and a majority of cantons.

French commission set to publish recommendations on burqa in January 2010

This article points to the rise in popularity of the National Front in the polls alongside the Swiss minaret ban, in the context of the commission on niqab and burqa-use in France headed by André Gerin. It will make its recommendations in January 2010.

French President Sarkozy responds to Swiss minaret ban

In an opinion piece for Le Monde newspaper, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has deplored the “excessive” French media and political reaction to the Swiss minaret ban. In his article, he reminds the French people of their Republican values of tolerance and openness and of the mutual respect between “those who arrive” and “those who welcome.”

The French president claims he was “stupefied” by the response and suggests that instead of condemning the Swiss for the vote outcome, it is important to understand “what it intended to express and what so many people in Europe feel, including the French”. “Nothing could be worse than denial.” Sarkozy adds he is convinced that a yes or no response to such complex 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 argues, 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.”

Sarkozy claims 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 recognize France’s Christian tradition, he adds, adding that anything that resembled a challenge to this heritage “would condemn to failure the very necessary establishment of Islam in France”.

Sarkozy highlighted the defense of national identity in his 2007 election campaign and pressed for the public debate that is due to end in February with a list of proposals. France has 64 mosques with minarets but only seven are deemed to be full-height, according to Brice Hortefeux, the Interior Minister.

Ayaan Hirsi-Ali writes on the Swiss minaret ban

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: The recent Swiss referendum that bans construction of minarets has caused controversy across the world. There are two ways to interpret the vote. First, as a rejection of political Islam, not a rejection of Muslims. In this sense it was a vote for tolerance and inclusion, which political Islam rejects. Second, the vote was a revelation of the big gap between how the Swiss people and the Swiss elite judge political Islam.

UK architects criticize Swiss minaret ban

British architects have slammed the Swiss vote of blocking the construction of minarets. Ali Mangera, of Mangera Yvars Architects, who masterminded the original London super-mosque proposals, said: “Decisions like this should be placed on architectural factors, not a pretext against Islam. This is more to do with the emasculation of a group of people – the right wing is behind this.” He added: “[Minarets] are not ideal for every part of London and they are not just about the call to prayer. But they are interesting features and also function as natural air conditioning mechanisms.”

Adrian Stewart, director of Do Architecture, which designed the minaret-less Al-Furqan Mosque in Glasgow for the UK Islamic Mission, said: “This is being used to isolate a community. A minaret is not a critical component of a mosque and does not always have to be involved. The debate has been blown out of proportion. We know from experience there is a desire to generate a regionalism, which makes a mosque very much more about its location.”