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Anti-Minaret Initiative and Interfaith Dialogue
Anti-Minaret Initiative and Interfaith Dialogue
Muslims around the world await the coming 29th of November on which Switzerland will vote on an initiative to ban the construction of minarets.
Wednesday, December 2,2009 18:13
by Rev. Markus Sahli Islamonline
Muslims around the world await the coming 29th of November on which Switzerland will vote on an initiative to ban the construction of minarets. Although the initiative was introduced by the biggest party in Switzerland, the Swiss People's Party (SVP), the government, Parliament, and most political parties and religious communities are against it. The issue of minarets sheds light on many other aspects and uncertainties about Muslims' integration in Swiss society.

In Switzerland, the land of direct democracy, any citizen with a political concern can present an initiative for the Swiss people to vote on. Two conditions must be fulfilled: the initiative must contain a concrete proposal for a change in the constitution, and it must be signed by at least 100,000 citizens.

On July 8, 2008, a group of citizens presented to the Swiss government a "people's initiative" with 114,895 signatures demanding the addition of the following regulation to the Swiss Federal Constitution: "The construction of minarets shall be banned."

Minarets and Freedom of Religion 

The committee behind the initiative says that the prohibition does not target Islam as a religion; it is rather about Islam as a political concept. According to the committee, the minaret is a symbol of political Islam and a sign of domination. In Switzerland, religion may not be set above the state. The prohibition of minarets is meant to ensure that the Swiss legal order and concept of society are not influenced, explains the committee.

According to current opinion polls, the initiative would be rejected by 53 percent of the voters. Those who have not yet decided are 14 percent. So, the outcome of the vote could be relatively tight.

The government, Parliament, and most of the political parties, churches, and religious communities reject the initiative. The most important reason behind that rejection is their belief in freedom of religion.

Article 15 of the Swiss Federal Constitution says, "The freedom of religion and philosophy is guaranteed. All persons have the right to choose their religion or philosophical convictions freely, and to profess them alone or in community with others. All persons have the right to join or to belong to a religious community, and to follow religious teachings. No person shall be forced to join or belong to a religious community, to participate in a religious act, or to follow religious teachings."
In Swiss law, freedom of religion is not only an individual right but also a corporate right. This right entails that a religious community has the right to build houses of God in accordance with its religious ideas. So, in principle, the building of mosques and minarets is allowed in Switzerland. Whether a minaret is necessary in the Islamic religion or not can be answered only by the Muslim community itself.

Swiss Council of Religions

The Swiss Council of Religions (SCR), which also includes leading figures of the Muslim religious community, has spoken out against the initiative. Switzerland has preserved its religious diversity for many centuries, with four languages, four different cultures, and two Christian denominations (Protestant and Catholic). The SCR points out that the diversity of cultures and religions makes Switzerland strong. It argues that every human being is a creature of God; therefore, every human being must be respected, regardless of his or her color, language, or religion.

Nevertheless, it must be remembered that almost 115,000 citizens want the construction of minarets to be forbidden in Switzerland. These signatures must be interpreted as a sign that there are uncertainties among the Swiss population about Islam. These uncertainties must be taken seriously and reasons behind them should be analyzed.

Uncertainties About Islam

Many people in Switzerland are busy thinking whether Islam is more than a religion: Does it represent a social concept or even a political concept? How important is freedom of religion in Islam? What is the importance of human rights — and above all equality between women and men — in Islam? What is the expected attitude of a constitutional state like Switzerland where religion and democracy are dealt with on equal footing? Isn't it correct that there are signs indicating that radical forms of Islam are advancing all over the world?

Muslims' demands for separate cemeteries, separate opening times of swimming pools for men and women, and the exemption of girls from sporting activities in schools disturb many people. They are afraid of the birth of a parallel society that can lead to conflicts, as in France, for example.

Discrimination Elsewhere, an Excuse? 

The questions being discussed in public at present also relate to the Christian minorities in Islamic countries where Christians are discriminated against and persecuted. They may practice their faith only in private and may not confess it publicly. Marriages between Christians and Muslims are forbidden, and parents may not choose the faith of their children. In some Islamic countries, Christian communities are not allowed to build new churches or purchase any property. In some other Arab countries, wearing Christian symbols in public is forbidden.

Interfaith Dialogue 

The Swiss Council of Religions (which includes SEK-FEPS) has made it clear that these questions are also important. However, the council also opines that Switzerland may not forbid the construction of minarets on the pretext that freedom of religion is limited in some Islamic countries.

In this respect, the SCR sought contact with ambassadors of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). In September 2009, a short meeting between an SCR delegation and OIC ambassadors was held, and various understandings of the concept of freedom of religion were discussed. The SCR explained its stance toward the anti-minaret initiative to the ambassadors, and then it was agreed that the dialogue would continue.

About 30 years ago, there were 15,000 Muslims in Switzerland; today there are 400,000. They comprise 5 percent of the total population of Switzerland. This figure illustrates the importance of interfaith dialogue in Swiss society. In the future, the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) will have to take on great responsibility toward peace among the religions and toward social cohesion, not only in Switzerland but all over the world.

tags: Interfaith Dialogue / Switzerland / SVP / Parliament / Political Parties / Religious Communities / Swiss Government.
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