No Minarets, Please, We’re Swiss

Volume 43, Issue 1, by Michael J. Crosbie

The 21st century’s first decade, a span of ten years marked with rising religious fundamentalism, intolerance, and sectarian violence around the world, closed with a new ban on minarets in Switzerland.


That’s right. At the end of November a majority of voters on a referendum in Switzerland decided that the best way to fight the country’s growing Muslim population was to ban the construction of minarets. The action, which sounds like a plot twist in an old Woody Allen movie, was the result of a move by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to counter what it perceives as the growing presence of Islam in the country of fine chocolates and secret bank accounts. Islam is the second largest religion in Switzerland after Christianity. Of the country’s 7.7 million inhabitants, there are about 400,000 Muslims. The referendum’s supporters view the minaret as a symbol of the power of Islam. By banning minarets, they figure, Islamic identity will be held in check, at least on the country’s skyline.

At one level, this idea invests incredible power in architecture. To deny one religion to build an iconic architectural feature of its place of worship is a way to deny that religion’s existence, or at least its legiti- macy. The campaign to ban minarets was publicized by posters showing a woman dressed in a shadowy burka, standing in front of the Swiss flag, which was studded with an array of black, pointy minarets, arranged like so many nuclear missiles. The architecture became the weapon – a threat to the future existence of Switzerland. The majority of voters, 57.5 percent, cast their ballots to disarm these minaret missiles by preventing any more from being built. Switzerland, you might assume, must be awash in minarets. Actually, in a country covering nearly 16,000 square miles, you can count the number of minarets on one hand (there are four). In the past few years, applications to construct two new minarets were turned down. The Swiss aren’t taking any chances.

The fact is that the number of minarets in a given country cannot be correlated to the strength of the Islamic faith in a country, or to the number of Muslims. Scientists have studied this phenomenon very carefully, under controlled laboratory conditions, and have found no connection. Scientific evidence further suggests that limiting the number of minarets has very little if any affect on the power exercised by Muslims. But, there is absolutely no debate among those in the scientific community that an attempt to crush a religion, or to control what some see as religious extremism, by banning the construction of minarets typically has the opposite effect. It also tends to make other people who are not Muslims think that it’s OK to attack members of the construction-deprived religion and to vandalize mosques, which has already happened in Switzerland (but was not in evidence before the campaign to ban minarets was underway).

In the next issue, we’ll discuss how French President Nicolas Sarkosy is championing the rights and freedoms of Islamic women in France by banning the wearing of burkas in public.

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