Let me reassure readers that everyone in this country will continue to enjoy the right to their own opinion and practice their own religion. As a member of the Working Group on Islam of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Switzerland, I did not hesitate about how to respond to the initiative. It was clear to me that I had to vote against the proposal. However, it would be wrong for people like myself who expected a different outcome to recriminate and consider all those who backed the initiative as a bunch of xenophobes, Islamophobes or think that they are all members of conservative, or extreme rightwing parties. Such a simplistic view is already present in the public debate, and has led to the kind of outcome we had. This attitude has led pollsters and Swiss lawmakers to be wrong about the poll’s outcome. Unfortunately, the Swiss parliament did not have the courage or the wisdom to prevent the unconstitutional referendum from taking place. In fact, it is especially striking that the negative stigma deterred pro-ban promoters from confronting their adversaries out of fear that they would be labelled xenophobic or Islamophobic. The fear of being criticised and verbally attacked appears to have been one of the foremost features of the last months of the campaign. As I took part in several town-hall meetings in Swiss villages (the smallest unit provides the best vantage point to see the local way of thinking and how it changes), I was surprised to see how, meeting after meeting, people increasingly came to accept the arguments in favour of the ban. Among these people, some are involved in charity work, and others have family ties with people in Muslim countries. Surprisingly, I did not meet any real xenophobe and very few sympathised with the Swiss People's Party (SVP), the main force in favour of the initiative.
So, who is behind the plan to ban minarets? Or better, what is behind this attitude? I am not able to provide a full explanation of why; ce serait bien prétentieux de ma part. But I do see that those who have bought into the initiative have a strong sense of identity and religion. In sociology, the notion of identity is seen as a “work in process”. This process evolves through outside ethnic, linguistic, religious, political contributions and more. Swiss identity changes too but not at our neighbours’ pace. The Swiss appear to need more time to adapt to societal changes. As a source of strength that shaped the centuries-old history of the country, religion has always created problems for the Swiss, always wary about anything that might affect their independence, but also concerned about human rights and everything that affects the right to freedom. Unfortunately, an intolerant and expansionist form of Islam, sponsored by some groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia has been a source of deep concern for Swiss for some time. It would be wrong to dismiss such fears towards Islam; instead, we must ask ourselves where does it come from and why the Swiss voted ‘Yes’ to an initiative that on the face of it was not about Islam per se but only about religious buildings.
I dare hope that Muslims in Switzerland will use the outcome of the referendum as an opportunity to build a Europe-centred Islam. Along this line, I dare hope that the poll results will not lead to sterile reprisals. Democracy means choice. The people of Switzerland have spoken. We may deplore that choice, but we can hope that life will remain peaceful in a country where Muslims are always welcome. The vote should lead Swiss Muslims to reflect on their place in society, in Switzerland, Europe and the world.
In Europe, Islam must, I think, increase its capacity to reflect on and react against every violation of human rights. It must also do this in relation to Muslim countries. Muslims must promote religious freedom and accept that others might not share their faith. It is often profoundly unjust to lump together Islam and fanatical groups in some Muslim countries that do not respect the most elementary rules about the dignity of men and women. This is the same kind of bias that would have us describe all those who voted for the Swiss initiative as Islamophobes.
Yet, we must ask ourselves if Muslims in Switzerland and Europe have really thought about taking the necessary steps to distance themselves from a kind of Islam that is expansionist and repressive.