Muslims pose no ‘threat’ to Switzerland

Following the controversial debate on integration and assimilation of Islam in Switzerland, which led to the legal passing of a right-wing initiative of the populist SVP party against the construction of minarets in the country in 2009, three postulates requested to urgently obtain further information upon the state of affair of the Muslim community in Switzerland.

The Swiss Federal Council subsequently charged the Ministry of Federal Justice and Police to write a report on the community, which was released last week Wednesday. The report qualifies the diverse Swiss Muslim community as posing no ‘threat’ to the country, whose integration is slowed down rather by ‘linguistic and sociocultural barriers than questions of religious order’. No ‘specific measures’ are to be taken to ‘better integrate’ the Muslim communities of the country, the Ministry concluded.

The report indicates that the Muslim population of the country has remained demographically stable in the last 10 years. Whereas in 2000 3.6% of the Swiss population identified as Muslim, in 2010 it was 4.5.%. These numbers contradict the SVP parties fear mongering rhetoric and campaign which predicted the demographic doubling of the Muslim community in Switzerland on the basis of vague estimations made between 1970 and 2000 and led to their successful 2009 anti-minaret campaign.

The Ministry’s report underlines the heterogeneity of the Muslim community, which is neither monolithic nor static, but made up by communities of different ethnic, linguistic, national and cultural backgrounds as well as sectarian differences. Amongst the Swiss Muslim population, those who are practicing are numbered as a small minority (only 15%). Only half of the population is part of an organised Muslim group and the other half practices their religion privately and in an ‘individual manner’.

The report also lists a number of specific public domains, such as the army, education or health, where Islam doesn’t pose any obvious problems. Areas of conflict arise, according to the report, in the fields of funerals, forced marriages, djihadism or discrimination at workplace.

Accordingly, the Federal Council underlines that ‘severe problems’ of the religious groups and its members only occur in exceptional circumstances and are often dependant on the individual rather than the group or a Muslim organisation. In only few rare cases imams have attempted to impose extremist ideas in mosques, whereas only a dozen of mosques in the country are believed to be subject to extremist interpretations of Islam. The majority of Swiss mosques adhere to a moderate teaching and practice of Islam.

What the government report, however, also reveals is the existence and prevalence of an intersection of discrimination faced by the country’s Muslim population. Being both ‘foreign’ and Muslim puts members of the 350.000-400.000 strong community in positions of increased vulnerability to discrimination, harassment and hate crimes on the basis of racism and xenophobia.

Switzerland report

Demands for muslim cemeteries stirs debate

The president of the Coordination of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland, Farhad Afshar, has called for a legal solution on the federal level with respect to the question of separate burial grounds for Muslims. This comes following the rejection by authorities in Köniz, a suburb of Bern, to create separate cemetery plots for Muslims. Afshar has said goes against freedom of religion, and is now supporting the creation of separate Muslim cemeteries throughout the country

However, his initiative has met with criticism from both scholars and representatives from the Swiss Muslim community. Stéphane Lathion, head of a research group on Islam in Switzerland at the University of Lausanne, stated that in almost all cases where discussions concerning Islamic cemeteries had taken place, solutions had been found at the local level. Lathion also raised the point that a large number of Muslims are also repatriated, while Afshar was more generally criticised by experts for not being representative of Switzerland’s mostly Turkish and Bosnian Muslim community.

Some Muslim leaders such as Abdel Lamhanger, a Socialist councillor in the canton of Fribourg, agree that the issue is relevant; however, it should be the object of negotiation and consensus, rather than federally-imposed legal rulings. In an interview with the French-speaking national radio show Forum, Lamhanger said: “when things are imposed by the judicial system it’s the rule of law, but when they are imposed by negotiation it’s adhesion and the building of a future.”

In some special cases, such as in Geneva, Muslim and Jewish communities have fought together for separate plots. However, according to Nicole Poëll, deputy president of the Platform of Liberal Jews in Switzerland, “the issue of religious cemeteries is not an issue – it’s been resolved.”

Muslim are ‘us’ not ‘them’

Following his participation in the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies at Neuchâtel University, Muslim migration expert H. A. Hellyer tells swissinfo.ch that he is more worried about the “festering discontent” that led to the minaret ban than the ban itself.

Hellyer states that he was not surprised that there such a ban should arise in Europe, though he was surprised that it occurred in Switzerland. He contests the idea that the vote was not against the Swiss Muslim community but rather against the spread of Islam in the country, and emphasises that the ban has virtually nothing to do with Swiss Muslims but rather reflects questions of identity for non-Muslim Swiss and their perception of Muslims. Hellyer argues that the overturning the ban legally is not the issue, and neither are foreign provocations such as the “holy war” called for by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Rather, Islam has become a convenient excuse for the Swiss, like for many other Europeans, to avoid defining “what we are, as opposed to what we are not,” following the changes brought on by globalization. Governments have a role to play in this challenge, but inevitably so does the media, civil society, and the Muslim community itself.

The Swiss minaret debate goes on

The new year continues as the old one ended: with discussing the Swiss minaret ban and its consequences. A prominent TV talk show hosted Justice minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, Hisham Maizar, president of the Federation of Islamic Umbrella Organisations and Thomas Wipf of the Swiss Protestant Communion.

Starting off with a positive statement, Widmer-Schlumpf stated that at least “We finally discuss”. Maizar demanded a public and legal acknowledgment of Islam, while Wipf claimed it was still to early for that and that Muslims should be sensitive for being a minority among a majority – that includes not demanding the construction of minarets yet. He furthermore regretted the fact that there were so many different currents within Islam and that Swiss Muslims did not speak with one voice. This point was supported by Maizar, calling for a greater union within the Swiss Muslim community, which should be supported by the state. Widmer-Schlumpf, however, rejected this request as not being the task of the state.

Swiss court legitimizes hatred-inciting poster

The Swiss Federal Court acquitted coalition partner the Democratic Union of the Center (UDC), a right-wing political party, from charges of its election campaign poster inciting hatred between communities. In the poster, Swiss Muslim citizens are seen worshipping. The superscript over the photo reads “Use your heads,” urging non-Muslim citizens to vote for the party in the face of the “Muslim threat.” The Muslims, photographed whilst prostrating themselves in prayer, came together in Bern in a show of solidarity when the cartoon crisis erupted in Denmark in 2005. Ali Ihsan Aydin reports.

Muslims Protest Parisian Book Fair Beginning March 14, 2008

Several Muslims countries as well as the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO) are boycotting a book fair in Paris because of the invitation of Israel. ISESCO claims that Israel has committed crimes against humanity in Palestine and therefore should not be celebrated. The book fair is honouring 39 Israeli writers and has said it is a coincidence that it falls on Israel’s 60th anniversary of independence. Prominent Swiss Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan has also supported the boycott. Writing in Le Monde newspaper, Ramadan said “choosing Israel as guest of honour at a time when Palestinians are dying in Gaza is tactless and a blunder.” Simon Peres, the President of Israel on a state visit to France this week, noted that the boycott was the stupidest thing I have ever heard of in my life. Next year’s guest of honour at the fair is Mexico.