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The Referendum on Minarets in Switzerland - CS EN


The authors point out the cultural and religious tensions and inequalities on which the referendum on the Minarets drew attention.

Religion was, is, and probably will always be an important (and complicated) phenomenon in the history of humankind. Being multifaceted and multiform it concerns spiritual, ethical, cultural, social, and many other aspects of human life bringing them all together and creating a basis for many events, developments, transformations, wars, conflicts, and so on. Probably, this would be amongst other reasons why it is quite difficult to give only one all-compassing and univocal definition of religion accepted by everybody. Nowadays, we are witnessing a new interest directed towards religion as an idea (this could be described as more theoretical interest about philosophical foundations of religion as such) and towards religions as phenomena (this is the practical interest caused by the necessity of religions to co-exist together and share cultural, social, political, and ethical environment).

In my opinion, this interest is primarily due to the processes of globalization and their main consequences – great mobility of big human masses that is bringing closer the figure of the Other in the philosophical cognitive sense, that is causing a necessary social communication between very different societies, and that is provoking certain comparisons of and certain interactions between the values/norms/ideals on which individuals are building their lives and that are very often directly dependent on the religious systems that are being advocated by different social groups (as big as nations and countries, as small as closed religious communities up to few dozens or few hundreds people).

Thus, it is not surprising that interactions on religious matters are not always peaceful and could be very intensive and conflict provoking due to the importance of questions discussed. Nowadays, the tension is especially high between monotheist worlds dominant religions, such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Remembering that religion has many facets of influence on the everyday life of the personal religious disputes/tensions/clashes could have different origins. I would distinguish the following aspects of the contemporary interreligious conflicts:

  • Ethical aspect concerns the issue of different ethical norms and values deriving from different religious sources. The tension usually arises when certain ethical norms are not just different, but contradictive to each other. As an example, one could think about strict monogamy in Christianity and possibility of polygamy for men in Islam.
  • Social norms aspect could be rather close to the ethical conflict, but it is dealing mostly with the general way the society is supposed to be organized and function as well as with general social expectations that are being put on every individual member of the society. It is in terms of social norms that the heated discussions about religious symbols in public life1 are taking place in Western Europe nowadays.
  • Cultural aspect might encompass some features of the ethical and social norms aspects, but it has its specifics. It is tightly linked to the idea of cultural identity (however controversial and vague as a notion the last one may be) and the mutations it is inevitably undergoing today. Cultural aspect is very often a part of the religious conflict when newcomers (immigrants) with distinctive religious view, traditionally not common in certain areas, are questioned on the aspect of being able to be a part of the culture of their new home (for instance, a country or a region where they immigrate to and settle).
  • The political aspect is usually being involved on the diplomatic level, between high representatives of countries with different religious systems or between high representatives of different religious trends. Political conflict is very often not a purely religious conflict as many other factors (economical, geopolitical, power influence, etc.) intervene and intermingle in between. One might think that most of the interreligiouus conflicts today are having a certain political background. If we take politics as a public sphere (as Hannah Arendt used this notion in her work The Human Condition) we could agree with such point of view.
  • The spiritual aspect is linked to a dispute over theological questions of the appropriate ways to worship transcendental powers (God or goddesses) and the main amongst them “who is God?”. In my opinion, this type of conflict is relatively rare in modern ecumenist societies. Even though, there is a strong opposition/tension between such religions as Christianity and Islam usually clash between adherents of these two world religions include other aspects of religious conflicts listed above.

Differentiating such aspects of interreligious conflicts I would like to emphasize that this categorization has a theoretical-methodological character that is used when one attempts to analyze what is behind a certain action and what is needed in order to respond to it correctly. In practice, ethical, social, cultural, and political aspects are strongly interrelated and interdependent. This means that certain cases of interreligious debates could have several aspects differentiated above. However, based on what aspect is leading in the interreligious conflict, one might have to use different techniques in order to solve it as each of them requires a specific approach or a combination of approaches.

As an example of interreligious conflict and analysis of its underlying causes, I would like to take the most recent resonating case of the national referendum on the building of the minarets in Switzerland that took place in the end of November 2009 and was aimed directly against the Muslim population of Switzerland. The majority of the Swiss population has voted for the amendment of the Swiss Constitution that would specifically prohibit building minarets (the attributes of Muslim architecture) in Switzerland from now on. The results of the referendum caused indignation amongst Muslims from all over the world (one of the main critiques of such outcome of the referendum is linked to the fact that an amendment to the constitution of this kind would mean neglecting the basic human rights that Switzerland is claiming to provide for its citizens and inhabitants). Thus, the conflict is at the moment in its active phase and much depends on what actions would be taken both in Switzerland (how and whether the result of the referendum would be incorporated in the official policies of the state) and abroad (what measures and reactions the position of the majority of the Swiss population could provoke both individually and on the political level).

According to the categorization that I have proposed above, we could name the cultural aspect to be a dominating one in this conflict. This aspect of the religious tension involves a set of mechanisms of the cultural comparison between “us” and “them”. To my opinion, one of the important questions behind (non)acceptance Islam in the European countries concerns the necessity to deal with a collective cultural identity of Muslims, very different from the traditional European Christian identity. Of course, this would not be the only reason for problems that currently appear between immigrant Muslim inhabitants and native population of certain countries (other challenging issues include, for instance, economic and social problems of newcomers’ integration, the fear of Islamic terrorism, non-acceptance of the patriarchal gender roles system in Islam, political frictions between the West and the Arabic East, etc.). However, the referendum on the minarets amongst other things was a proof of the desire of the Swiss people (at least the majority of the population) to show that Muslims are not the part of the traditional culture of the country and thus, certain restrictions on the ways they live are accepted and should be allowed even legislatively.

Based on the speculations on the motivation behind the decision of people of Switzerland, we could make a conclusion that during the referendum the majority of the Swiss population has voted not directly against the minarets, but first of all against what the minarets represent as symbols of the Islamic culture and as symbols of the religion that is not part of the tradition in the region (it one more time emphasizes the cultural aspect of the conflict). This conclusion is supported by different findings and speculations reported in the media in the last few months.2 In the popular and vulgarized opinion, Islam is interpreted as a dangerous system of views that is characterized by fanaticism and terrorism. Many factors played role and continue to be important for such interpretation: media representations and images of Islam and Muslims in general; the difficulties that certain countries (for instance, France and Germany) are now experiencing in relation to their Muslim immigrants; political conflicts on the high level (for instance, Iran and the world community); etc. All this is creating a background for (mis)communication between Muslims and Christians nowadays, (mis)communication that has a religious component as one of the most important ones.

A special attention should be paid to the expectations and values at stake in the situation of the referendum on the minarets in Switzerland. The religious doctrine of Islam necessarily affirms certain values and norms that its adherents are supposed to follow in their everyday life to express their belongingness to the Muslim community. However, in the case with the minarets, one could observe that the principal subject of discussions does not really include references to the authentic and specific for Muslims values (or we could say that it refers not only to them). Values that are at stake in the voting of the Swiss population are being based on the tradition of Western democracy and liberalism because Muslims explicitly and implicitly refer to them.

Muslims of Switzerland defend their right to follow their religion and freedom to express themselves in the democratic country. In a sense, in this respect, they want to be considered as a part of the society, not as external invaders. On the part of the Swiss population, the mixture of emotions and anxiety of those against the minarets include the fear of expansion of foreign ideas as well as the fear of the spread of new social norms and values (“against Islamization of Switzerland”) that could be considered in terms of conservatism and traditionalism (the desire to keep things the way they are). The value of secularism (political and functional separation of the Church and other institutions of the State) as a claimed doctrine in the western countries plays a non-direct role as well.

Secularism presupposes that religion does not have answers to questions in all spheres of human life, and thus, is lessening its omnipresence in the life of the person. People from the secularized states would not consider religious attributes, symbols, etc. crucial for the life of the relevant community as well as they might consider symbols and attributes of “foreign" for them religions even more inappropriate to be presented in their country.

If one takes into consideration all arguments presented above it is becoming clear that in order to solve the conflict one should take the problem of communication between the Muslims and the Christians in general. The referendum on the minarets in Switzerland is showing the split between the citizens and the immigrants that could not be overcome in one day. The strategies directed towards solving religious conflicts between the “autochthons” and the “newcomers” should not only concentrate on the religion but also include and foster the general intercultural dialogue. This would mean engaging many different spheres of individual and group co-existence as well as many different levels of social exchange.

The task is not easy and requires many efforts on the part of many social actors – politicians, journalists, religious authorities, etc. It is also important to mention that the efforts and steps towards reconciliation should be done both by the Christians and the Muslims. The approach towards management of interreligious conflict situations of the kind described above should be systematic and account for the problems that could arise. When the cultural aspect is dominating in the interreligious conflict (as it is the case with the minarets issue in Switzerland) a special attention should be paid to the questions of ethnocentrism, negative stereotypisation, xenophobia, prejudices, etc. that are playing an important role in the interactions between the members of different groups (for instance, between the representatives of different cultures). Religion is regarded as one more factor when “we” is opposed to “they”. Thus, the methods of overcoming this opposition are similar to the methods of overcoming any other cultural opposition. They include possibilities to get as much information as possible about the other group; necessity of the frequent everyday contacts (both individual and collective); corrections of the education programs so they would include the idea of “interculturality” in their curriculum; social and political encouragement of the cultural diversity in the society and so on.

In relation to the issue of the minarets in Switzerland I think that public discussions in the media (what is happening right now) are already the way to influence the public opinion. They are very important and should be as visible as possible. These discussions show the profoundness of the problem of integration of the Muslims in the Swiss society. Media – both traditional and especially new ones (i.e. Internet) – should play one of the most important roles in finding the way to solve the conflict on the minarets. Unfortunately, nowadays media are very often stirring up every tension and scandal that happen in the society. I consider the Internet to have a very good potential in the respect of discussions and influence on the public opinion. It proposes features that were not available before, and one of the most vital ones for the development of intercultural and interreligious communication is its high level of interactivity and direct contact between different members of the society. Through the Internet, the Swiss population could freely and honestly express its fears about Islam, while Muslim immigrants could help others to learn more about their religion.

Every member of the society could make a personal contribution to resolving the conflict by being open to discussions and trying to assess critically all information received. I think in this sense, every person could become a modest mediator and a participant of the interreligious dialogue.