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The Vote on Minarets - CS EN


Analysis of the values at stake in the religious tensions opposing Christians and Muslims in the case of the vote on Minarets.


Being a Swiss citizen I would like to present and discuss an “inter-religious”1 conflict in Switzerland which has just recently reached its climax in November 2009 when the people of Switzerland voted for banning the construction of new minarets on its territory, following a people’s initiative - one of the most powerful democratic tool for citizens in Switzerland2. At least 30% of the electorate voted for the initiative and the ban with 53% of eligible citizens voting. This indicates the proportion of voters and shows that does not represent a majority of all voters. But, nevertheless, the result of this poll could be interpreted as an inter-religious conflict between Christians and Muslims.

The international community after the poll looked with disbelief towards Switzerland. Even the government of Switzerland was irritated by the result and tried to explain to Muslim leaders that the vote was not against Islam and that freedom of worship would still be in place. But voters against the spread of Islam in Switzerland can see the initiative and its result as a signal and it was taken as a wake-up call to both Swiss government and Swiss Muslims.

I will look at the values at stake in this inter-religious conflict in order to find the strategies for conflict resolution and to identify the possible strategies for mediation.


Inter-religious conflict: the minaret ban in Switzerland

Like with any other tension rising and leading to a conflict there are many different reasons and incidents that come along the way. The ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland could be seen at the end of a long process of growing xenophobia of foreigners which started with a referendum (Schwarzenbach initiative) in 1970 as a reaction to the „excess of foreigners“ (mainly coming from the neighbouring country Italy). Back then, the initiative was not accepted by Swiss voters and this political movement decreased a little in the coming years later but saw a revival in the mid-1990s and was addressed mainly by the populist propaganda of the Swiss People's Party (SVP).

9/11 gave it another turn globally: the war against terrorism and the Islam in general nurtured negative ideas of xenophobists everywhere. And it comes as no surprise that one of the politicians working in the Schwarzenbach team back then, is now one of the leading heads of the anti-minaret initiative. So behind it, you can see a conflictual process which has its roots in migration and integration and can lead to an inter-religious conflict. And the problems faced by religious minorities can be major: the very strong right of the Swiss people to express their opinion in a referendum can restrict the rights of minorities – any minority. In the case of the minaret ban it is about Muslims representing Islam.


Muslims in Switzerland

Islam has become the fastest growing major religion in the world: it grew more than five times during the twentieth century from a population base of 200 million in 1900 to almost 2 billion Muslims today. So the change in Muslim and Catholic demographics over the past thirty years is striking. The number of Muslims living in Switzerland doubled from 1990 to 2000 due to a large influx of refugees and asylum seekers - mainly victims of the war in the former Yugoslavia. There are about 200 mosques and prayer houses in Switzerland but only four of them have a minaret. The Muslim community in Switzerland accounts for about 4.5% of the population and is the second biggest religious community in Switzerland.

Most Muslim immigrants came from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey but the community includes up to 100 nationalities. Their religion is the Islam and their holy text (our „bible“) is the Koran. Islam today is considered, as a whole, to be a fundamentalist religion. However, in reality, there are different Islamic traditions and, above all, there are various forms of fundamentalisms. There are forms of fundamentalism present in the Christian religion, more specifically, in Protestantism and Catholicism as well. Jewish religious movements and some political parties active in Israel today are also considered to be a fundamentalist.

As mentioned above, so far there are only four minarets in Switzerland. Of the 200 mosques in Switzerland, only one in Geneva (built 1978) includes a library and teaching space and is worthy of the name mosque. The other one in Zurich (1963) is a small symbolic one and all the other places of worship are simply prayer houses. In the following years, different Muslim communities in Switzerland wanted to construct minarets in their neighbourhood (Wangen b. Olten and Langenthal). The mosque in Wangen b. Olten was inaugurated last June 2009. But the movement against these constructions had grown steadily and finally culminated in the initiative and in the ban of minarets. In this conflict different values of two different cultures collide because their interpretation of a religious symbol is very different. And at the very roots of this conflict is a failed process of migration and integration.


Values at stake

While going to church for the mess is not very popular in Switzerland anymore as Christians are seldom practitioners of their religious faith (protestant or catholic), it seems that Muslims are taking their religious ceremonies very serious. While one part of the population – the majority in Switzerland – is living as if without God, „the others“ are following the rules of God very strictly, even in their daily lives. Contrary to Europe in general and Switzerland in particular, where Christianity in modern times has experienced the phenomenon of secularisation, the Islamic world did not experience the same.

Following the global spreading of Western values, some groups of Islam have had a specific counter- reactions – as we would see it - that could be considered conservative or downright fundamentalist. As Swiss citizens, we are not defending our religion really, but we are defending our civil rights, which in Islamic countries seem to be intertwined with religion and leads to tension between religious ethics and social ethics. One example is the discussion that takes place not only in Switzerland but many western countries about using the Islamic veil (the hijab) by a woman in their daily lives at work and in schools.

Religious ethics and social ethics have become the same. And the minaret is seen as a symbol of Islam and more minarets is seen as the spreading of Islam. When in a survey after the vote for the ban of minarets in Switzerland people who voted „yes“ were asked about their motives, the majority answered that „the minaret is a symbol of Islamic supremacy“ and the ban was about making a “symbolic gesture” against the spread of Islam in Switzerland3. When young women were asked why they had voted for the ban, they often responded: „I don’t want to wear a burka or veil“. Even though the vote was not about introducing Islam as a religion in Switzerland! But the statements show clearly the fears behind it.

Other voters said that their decision was a reaction to the discrimination of Christian churches in countries where Islam is strong. Supporters of the ban argued that they want to restrict what they consider the Islamification of Switzerland and sharia law. One of the leading parties in promoting the anti-minaret initiative argued: "The Islamic religion is intolerant, but we do not want to limit freedom of religion, we want to outlaw the political symbol."4 They see minarets as a symbol of an Islamic claim to power and are concerned about the growing Muslim community in Switzerland, radical imams, the role of women, as well as head scarves and other dress codes.

The object of the conflict are the minarets. But in reality, the object is the association with the minarets and the minaret has become the symbol of the conflict. The construction of the minaret is the material part of the conflict. But the cultural and religious part of the minaret is the immaterial part.

Religion and its symbols are part of a culture and they present the intangible part but are very important especially in the monotheistic religions e.g. Christianity and Islam. For Muslims, the minaret is a religious symbol. For the Swiss fighting the construction of minarets this is the political symbol of Islamification and their implementation of its norms and values. Their relation to this symbol is socially constructed and differs according to the viewer. The interpretation might be grounded on convictions and is a cultural belief which does not need empirical foundation. But the supporter of the minaret ban is convinced, that the minaret is a political symbol and that Muslims have the wrong values and beliefs.

They are anti-women (look who is talking: e.g. Switzerland has introduced the right for women to vote only in 1971!) and violent. So Swiss people in this conflict are expressing their fears about loosing power and security on their cultural territory. They think that the values of Islam are not compatible with western culture. On the other hand, Muslims want their culture and religion to be accepted. It is a fact, that many mosques are still built in former warehouses and garages and that this has further strengthened the image and reality of Muslim communities as a part of shadow society, as Imam Pallavicini pointed out in a speech in front of the European Parliament.

Both sides fear the loss of their identity because their cultural and religious identity is in danger. It is a clear lack of information and confidence. The Islamic side thinks that Swiss are not well informed about Islam, and Swiss believe that Muslims are not well informed about socio-political topics in Switzerland.

The conflict situation we have described needs various types of mediation and communication approaches, both on the intercultural and inter-religious levels - a real dialogue. Because if dialogue is not possible, there is only space left for indifference and violence. And I would think that dialogue would be the best strategy in this conflict.


Strategies for mediation

Mediation in this conflict should have started a long time ago – as a real dialogue. Because in the long process leading to the minaret ban in Switzerland the solution for Swiss people to fight “Islamism” started threefold: 1) they tried to stop the construction by civil rights and pleaded against the construction on the municipal level. 2) They tried to stop it on a political level launching the initiative and 3) they tried very hard to influence public opinion. Not so much with facts but with fears. Their public ads were called racist but helped to fuel the discussions about Islam. In all these means to fight, there is always a winner and a looser. On the civil solution, the law gave the right to the supporter of minarets, leaving the opponents behind with bad feelings about their rights in their own country!

Therefor mediation would be a much better way to solve this problem before it becomes a conflict. It is a way to find a mediator to intervene between the two parties in disagreement. The communication structure in the mediation process – which should consist of one-to-one talks - has to be equal: two mediators of the respective culture and religion should be dialoguing.

Jandt (1998) in his leading book about intercultural communication is looking thoroughly at the possible reasons for misunderstandings looking at six possible barriers6: anxiety, assuming similarity instead of difference, ethnocentrism, stereotypes and prejudice, nonverbal misinterpretations and language. The translation might be another important issue: only if the people not only translate word by word but know about the cultural meaning is it possible to help understand each other. The parties in the conflict have to take over the perspective of the other to feel their position. Only recognition and empowerment can lead to a change of positions after feeling more secure. You have to question all the prejudices and reframe statements in an acceptable way.

European Muslim intellectuals can play an important role in trying to develop an intercultural perspective that can help a better dialogue between secular institutions, postmodern society and religious pluralism avoiding the misleading messages of the radical Islamists. Imam Pallavicini has told us during his presentation in the MIC that in order to strengthen internal and external dialogue and respect toward diversities, religious leaders have to bring the messages of Muslim doctrine nearer to today's challenges, without losing the ancient teachings.

But as mentioned above in this inter-religious dialogue both parties have to take the other side into consideration and to be able to go as far as to appreciate all the elements present in each religion because only this can help to overcome tensions and open up for dialogue. Fabris in his presentation at MIC made the point that fundamentalism cannot be eliminated from the outside, but rather, from within the religious dimension: When one chooses to emphasise, on the part of the religious individual of various creeds, the common elements rather than the differences.

And this problem and the need of dialogue is by far restricted only to Switzerland. Even on the European level, the EU declared the year 2008 as the “European Year of Intercultural Dialogue” with the aim to reinforce social cohesion and civil peace in Europe facing increased diversity especially in the growing number of people of Muslim origin in a traditionally majority Christian geographical area. And the European Parliament in their Event report close with an optimistic view: “The younger Muslim leaders know how to handle the media, have social networks of support and participate in local decision-making. They want to build a national and a European Islam which relate to their local contexts.”



So what is the best way to solve this conflict and how would I – claiming to be trained in intercultural communication – try to solve it?

In our globalised world, members of different cultures come in contact with each other and have to communicate: be it at business, travel or private occasions. Misunderstandings (as Jandt puts it) are often the consequence of these encounters. Bradford (1997) in his book “Culture, Ethics and Communications” argues, that there is no universal solution to solve all of the ethical crises that can occur in this kind of situations. But he sees a key element in understanding and dealing with these crises that lies in our understanding of communication and its relationship to the norms and values, which make up any ethical system.

One would call it respect for “the other” due to all fellow humans, which is just loving to meet people of different background. But to be able to do this, you have to well inform people about the others: in schools, in the media and even in churches. It is all about working towards religious freedom and other human rights for all -- fellow believers and non-believers alike. Don’t generalise, but contextualise!

It goes beyond learning another foreign language but truly understand what it means to implement the intermediation of a message or information. It is learning about other norms and values and finding a common ground. Even Muslims think, that a Muslim does not really need a minaret to pray in a mosque. If Muslims want to defend religious symbols it is not about defending minarets. On the other hand, the question should be allowed: does a minaret disturb the western environment? Not really.

But people should still have a feeling for the time and place they are presently in. If you want to have your life exactly as you had it back home and rebuild it in a new environment this might lead to „ghettoism“, which can be the basis for conflict as well.

Switzerland – like many other countries in the west - in this case, is facing the responsibilities for new policies on the integration of immigrants, religious freedom, cultural diversity, citizenship and security. The inter-religious dialogue between the Western and the Arabic-Islamic context is as important as ever before in this globalised world. Dialogue among civilisations and religious communities are a very important part of intercultural communication. If you would ask the supporters of the minaret ban about how much they know about Islam or their Muslim neighbours, most of them could not say much. They just don’t know enough about it. It is this fear of the unknown “other” that can lead to conflict.

Imam Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini in an interview made the point about the responsibility of religious leaders - both in the East and the West – have in „fostering the culture of respect and actualising the message of masters and prophets so as to enlighten people’s hearts, minds and actions. Only by renewing the intercultural dialogue can we achieve a new social cohesion, turn over prejudices and lack of trust, and effectively isolate political totalitarianism, economic individualism and violent  fundamentalisms.“

Shortly before the poll some of the mosques in Switzerland offered a „day of open doors“, inviting Swiss people to come and see what is happening inside the mosque. Many Swiss people took this opportunity and visited the mosques nearby. I think this is definitely a good way of getting to know the „others“ and loosing fears. And this is a good way of starting a dialogue. In the final declaration of the first seminar of the Catholic-Muslim Forum in Rome in November 2008 it was stated that they „are convinced that Catholics and Muslims have the duty to provide a sound education in human, civic, religious and moral values for their respective members and to promote accurate information about each other’s religions“ and they agree on exploring the possibility of establishing a permanent Catholic-Muslim committee to coordinate responses to conflicts and other emergency situations.

This dialogue has to take place and spread top down. But the sooner and more often, the better. Being a Public relations officer I can see the need of the Muslim community to work on their image by informing Swiss population about who they are and what they do. It could be as simple as that.



  • Bradford, J. (1997). “Culture, Ethics and Communication”, p. 11-41, in: “Ethics in intercultural and international communication”, edited by Fred L. Casmir, London.
  • Catholic-Muslim Forum (2008). First Seminar of the Catholic-Muslim Forum, Rome, 4-6 November 2008, Final Declaration.
  • European Parliament (2008). Visibility of religion in the European public space: the question of worship places and religious symbols in clothing. 29 May 2008. Event report.
  • Jandt, Fred E. (1998). Intercultural Communication. An Introduction. 3rd edition. Sage Publications.
  • Monceri, F. (2009). The transculturing self II. Constructing identity through identification. In Language and Intercultural Communication. Vol.9. No.1. p. 43-53.
  • Pallavicini, Y. (2008). Speech at the European Christian-Muslim Conference in Brussels: Being a citizen of Europe and a person of Faith. Christians and Muslims as active partners in European societies.
  • Pallavicini, Y. (2007). People who work every day for harmony do not make headlines. Interview with Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini in: The official Website of a common word., last checked March 2010.