Switzerland, beyond the minaret ban
In November, 2009, peace-loving Switzerland shocked itself and the world when over 57 percent of its voters supported a referendum to ban construction of new minarets. The government had opposed the proposition on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, contravening Switzerland's commitment to religious freedom. In the expectation that the measure would fail and fearing that a "positive" campaign would fuel fear, the government did not actively campaign against it. In Switzerland's unique democracy, the citizens' vote meant that the constitution was changed.
What has followed has been much analysis, soul searching, damage control and careful dialogue. A visit to Bern, Switzerland's capital, earlier this week offered a chance to take stock of what it means for the future, with the benefit of the passage of some time since the heat of crisis.
The facts? Switzerland's constitution guarantees freedom of religion but that freedom is set against a complex history of religious tensions and discrimination. My Swiss government colleagues recalled that it was not long ago that Catholics could not build churches without government permission (the last vestiges of legal discrimination disappeared only in 2002), and a plebiscite on Jewish ritual slaughter was voted on before World War II. But Switzerland today prides itself on its religious harmony. Religion is regulated at the local (canton) level, with state support for a wide variety of churches and denominations. Young people today, I was told, have little trace of the religious bias that was the norm even a generation ago.
Switzerland's Muslim minority presents some new challenges. The Muslim population is between 300,000 and 400,000, most relatively new immigrants, most from the Balkans and Turkey. Most are well integrated in the communities where they live, and they are an extraordinarily diverse group, ranging from explicitly secular Muslims to pious Muslims from many traditions. Among the reasons the ban on minarets was such a shock was that minaret construction is hardly a prominent activity: of some 150 places of Muslim worship, only four have minarets and they are old and elegant.
After the shock victory of the minaret ban, the analysts reacted in force. More women than men supported the ban but the most significant finding for many was that the ban won in areas where few if any Muslims lived, and it was defeated in the areas where Muslims were concentrated. The conclusion? Fear of the unknown, stirred up by rhetoric of the pro-ban forces, was the major factor explaining support for the ban.
A government official involved in the dialogue cited a poignant example of how knowledge plays into prejudice. Switzerland has a Miss Switzerland but also a Mr. Switzerland who is celebrated all over the country. The winner of the competition in 2009 said that he had voted for the ban; he was against the rampant Islamicization of Switzerland, he said. But after he was invited to attend Friday prayers at a mosque, he had the gumption to state publicly that he had been wrong to oppose minarets, because he realized that the people he met were in fact nice and decent people. The overall sense, in short, was that the more people who knew Muslims, the less fearsome they found both religion and people (a conclusion echoed in the United States and other countries).
Damage control has involved both outreach and reassurance and efforts to improve the flow of information. Switzerland is still trying to explain the vote in international circles. However, while there is a hope that the measure will one day be repealed, for now it is the law of the land.
So for now the effort is on dialogue, reaching out to Muslim communities to reassure them and to address their concerns and sense of hurt and injustice. A dialogue process is underway, not easy to frame because the Swiss government does not deal officially with religion as religion. But a process of exchange involving several government departments and a wide spectrum of Muslims and many Swiss citizens, widely varied in their outlook, is underway and will in good time produce a report. And in the meantime a robust dialogue continues, with groups supporting "women for a progressive Islam", and more radical elements engaged in public television exchanges on topics like sharia law, treatment of women, and the ancient provisions for stoning adulterers.
A core principle of Swiss democracy is that a diverse population, speaking different languages and practicing different religions, can live together. The Swiss are confident that their institutions, grounded in a deep belief in the basic good sense of the voters, faith in local institutions for governance (the cantons), and commitment to principles of equality are sound and fair. Change can come slowly - women got the vote only in 1971 - but, the Swiss argue, it comes surely and well. The new era of migration and diversity presents new challenges. But the Swiss willingness to address the problems squarely, to discuss them thoughtfully and with both a short term and a long term perspective, is heartening. In a real sense it is an inspiration.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
By Katherine Marshall |
March 9, 2011; 12:20 AM ET
Faith in Action
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