Swiss Minaret Ban Survives Legal Challenge
by Soeren Kern
The European Court of Human Rights has rejected two cases brought by Muslims against Switzerland's constitutional ban on building minarets, the tower-like structures on mosques from which Muslims are often called to prayer.
A seven-judge panel at the Strasbourg-based court said on July 8 that it would not consider the cases as the plaintiffs failed to show how the ban harmed their human rights and they therefore "cannot claim to be 'victims' of a violation" of the European Convention on Human Rights, which the court enforces.
One of the cases was brought by a former spokesman for the mosque of Geneva and the other by a number of Swiss Muslim associations. It is now widely expected that the court will throw out three other similar cases on the minaret ban that are still pending.
Switzerland held a referendum in November 2009 in which citizens approved an initiative to insert a new sentence in the Swiss constitution stipulating that "the construction of minarets is forbidden."
The initiative was approved 57.5% to 42.5% by some 2.67 million voters. Only four of Switzerland's 26 cantons or states opposed the initiative, thereby granting the double approval that now makes the minaret ban part of the Swiss constitution.
The minaret ban represented a turning point in the debate about Islam in Switzerland.
The initiative was sponsored by the Swiss People's Party (SVP), which says the minarets symbolize the growing self-confidence and intolerance of Switzerland's Muslim community.
The SVP has described the minaret is a "symbol of a religious-political claim to power and dominance which threatens -- in the name of alleged freedom of religion -- the constitutional rights of others."
The SVP backs its claim by citing a remark by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has implied that the construction of mosques and minarets is part of a strategy for the Islamization of Europe. The pro-Islamist Erdogan has bragged: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers." Erdogan has also told Muslim immigrants in Europe that "assimilation is a crime against humanity."
In recent years the number of mosques in Switzerland has mushroomed; there now are some 200 mosques and up to 1,000 prayer rooms dotted across the country. Critics fear the mosques are facilitating the establishment of a parallel Muslim society, one that is especially welcoming to Islamic fundamentalists.
Even some voices on the political left, which has viewed the construction of mosques as symbols of Europe's post-Christian sophistication and open-mindedness, are beginning to voice concerns that their proliferation is a sign of failing integration.
The Muslim population in Switzerland has more than quintupled since 1980, and now numbers about 400,000, or roughly 5 percent of the population. Most Muslims living in Switzerland are of Turkish or Balkan origin, with a smaller minority from the Arab world. Many of them are second and third generation immigrants who are now firmly establishing themselves in Switzerland.
The new Muslim demographic reality is raising tensions across large parts of Swiss society, especially as Muslims become more assertive in their demands for greater recognition of their faith. The ensuing controversies are fuelling a debate over the role of Islam in Swiss society and how to reconcile Western values with a growing immigrant population determined to avoid assimilation.
In one case, for example, Muslim parents recently won a lawsuit demanding that they be allowed to dress their children in full-body bathing suits dubbed 'burkinis' during co-ed swimming lessons. In another case, a group of Swiss supermarkets created a stir by banning Muslim employees from wearing headscarves.
In August 2009, the Swiss basketball association told a Muslim player she could not wear a headscarf during league games. In August 2010, five Muslim families in Basel were fined CHF 350 ($420) each for refusing to send their daughters to mixed-sex swimming lessons.
In September 2010, the secretary of the Muslim Community of Basel was acquitted of publicly inciting crime and violence. The charges were pressed after the 33-year-old made comments in a Swiss television documentary saying that Islamic Sharia law should be introduced in Switzerland and that unruly wives should be beaten. The judge said the defendant was protected by freedom of expression.
In November 2010, Swiss voters approved tough new regulations on the deportation of non-Swiss convicted of serious crimes. The measure calls for the automatic expulsion of non-Swiss offenders convicted of crimes ranging from murder to breaking and entry and social security fraud.
Also in November, Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said the approval or extension of residency permits should be closely linked to the efforts immigrants make to integrate themselves. "Compulsory schooling must be respected. Children should attend all courses and exceptions made on religious or other grounds, for example in swimming classes, should no longer be possible," Sommaruga said.
In December 2010, the Federal Commission on Women's Issues called for Islamic burqas and niqabs to be banned in government offices and in public schools. The government-appointed committee said the move would prevent gender discrimination.
In January 2011, a Turkish woman living in Bern was sentenced to three years and six months in prison for encouraging the father and brothers of her daughter-in-law to carry out an "honor" crime against her for her "risqué lifestyle."
In May 2011, voters in canton Ticino, in Switzerland's Italian-speaking region, collected enough signatures to be able to launch a referendum that would ban burqas, niqabs and other Islamic head dresses. If the referendum goes ahead, it will be the first time in Switzerland that citizens have been asked to express an opinion on burqas.
Also in May, Swiss Defence Minister Ueli Maurer said increasing numbers of Swiss Muslims are training in Islamic militant camps in countries like Somalia and Yemen. In an interview with the SonntagsZeitung newspaper, Maurer also said that under current Swiss laws it is difficult to prevent Islamists from raising funds.
Meanwhile, an administrative court in Bern is expected to rule on the fate of a minaret in the town of Langenthal. Muslims in Langenthal, a town with a population of about 15,000, had been given permission to build a minaret five months before the constitutional ban on minarets took effect in November 2009, but opponents of the project say the earlier approval is now null and void. The case is still working its way through the Swiss legal system and will not be affected by the decision of the court in Strasbourg.