The Swiss Minaret Initiative
10 questions – 10 answers on Why the Referendum Initiative “Against the Construction of Minarets” is unacceptable
We can argue about minarets – about how they look, how tall they are, and their locations. These mosque towers have not, however, been making recent headlines for these reasons but instead due to the controversy over their function and significance, and even the question of whether they should even be permitted at all. Issues of esthetics and the like are a matter for architects and building laws. Questions on their symbolism and public visibility do not however impinge upon buildings alone but on the religion itself, which the minarets render much more visible, and on the people for whom the buildings serve as a type of home. Religious symbols – as the critics have said – need to be suited to their location, environment, and local cultural and religious habits and “values”. But when is a building suited to which surroundings? And how can a tower be seen to agree – or disagree – with various convictions and traditions? What is suitable and what is not – and according to which criteria and guidelines? There is only one simple and yet highly complex answer to this: Things are suited to places because they are part of the lives of the people who live there. And other things are not suited because nobody is in those places for whom they would be meaningful. A discussion about minarets thus means talking about the people for whom the minarets are of a particular importance.
1. What does the law have to do with religion?
â€œEveryone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.â€? Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 18
Questions about how people can and may confess, express, and live their faith all return to the fundamental question of the nature of humanity and what we are entitled to. Modern democratic states provide as much leeway as possible for the individual convictions of their people. They are free to believe and agree with what they want, and to decide what is important and desirable for their lives. The secular constitutional state not only expressly keeps out of these decisions, but also protects the freedoms of religion and opinion in its constitution and laws. This of course includes the freedom to publicly express these convictions.
2. Why religious freedom? What does it help?
“At the center of our Protestant faith lies the freedom that God grants us through Jesus Christ. It is the freedom for a life of responsibility and respect for people with different convictions and faiths. Religious freedom emerged from the spirit of the Christian faith even as it had to be fought for in large sections of the major Christian churches.” Thomas Wipf
These state obligations to protect freedoms are referred to as “religious freedom” in the language of democratic constitutions and human rights. This can be both positive and negative. Positive in the sense of protecting the religious views of each and every individual; and negative in the sense of protecting people from being forced to take on or to maintain any particular faith. The state itself must deliberately remain religiously neutral, neither prescribing nor prohibiting any single religion. This would indeed be entirely impossible from a Christian understanding for “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). From a Christian, and especially from a Reformed point of view, therefore, any specific religious demand or compulsion must be strongly rejected. Since faith is not of human but of divine provenance, no state has the right to demand religious obedience from its citizens or to ban any other religion.
3. What is the purpose of the Minaret Initiative?
The referendum initiative “Against the Construction of Minarets”, which was launched by the “Egerkingen Committee” in May 2007 and officially submitted in July 2008, seeks an amendment to the Swiss federal constitution to include the words “The construction of minarets is prohibited” in Article 72, paragraph 3. The initiators see the minarets not as religious buildings but as symbols of a “religious-political claim to power” that casts in doubt the “basic constitutional rights” and thus opposes Switzerland’s legal order. Religious freedom would thus not be affected by the amendment. The initiators did not attempt to hide the fact that the initiative would also serve to support a repressive, conservative policy toward foreigners.
4. Do Muslims need minarets?
â€œThe secular part of society is particularly upset, irritated by this demonstration of a strong faith, carved in stone, and feeling a type of phantom pain of their own faded ability to believe.â€? Claus Leggewie
The minaret opponents like to point out the holy writings of Islam do not mention any minarets. It is, however, just as true as the fact that the Bible makes no mention of church steeples. Minarets were first raised in eighth-century Syria, which was a predominantly Christian area at the time, with churches and church towers. Many believe that minarets were derived from these towers to present the religion publicly. As is the case with Christian churches and steeples, not all Islamic groups have mosques with minarets. But just like Christian denominations and churches, it is the communities of faith themselves that decide on the public symbols of their religions and their faiths. Whether Muslims require minarets is a question for them to answer themselves as members of their communities. This right of self-determination extends equally to all religions, churches, and communities of faith.
Is there a “clash of cultures” or why not?
“The intricacies of plural groups and multiple loyalties are obliterated by seeing each person as firmly embedded in exactly one affiliation, replacing the richness of leading an abundant human life with the formulaic narrowness of insisting that any person is ‘situated’ in just one organic pack.” Amartya Sen
The American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published his book “Clash of Civilizations” in 1993. But only after the events of September 11, 2001 did his conservative and discriminatory ideas of a supposedly superior “Western culture” (“the West versus the rest”) begin to gain traction. Huntington’s theories, however, foundered on their own false assumptions. One would, first of all, have to accept there being a clearly defined and delineated “Western world”, “Islamic world”, “Hindu world”, “Buddhist world”, etc. And one would also have to posit that every person in the world belonged to one of these worlds exclusively. Both presumptions are inaccurate not only in today’s globalized world, but ever since people have been aware that they are not the only people in the world. A “clash of cultures” can therefore only be seen in the guise of policies of marginalization in an attempt to denounce or prevent any “encounter of cultures”.
6. What is so Christian about the so-called “Christian West”?
“The Christian West is invoked especially when one seeks to slow down the process of modernization and all that it imposes on us. Belligerent escalations and apocalyptic global scenarios form a part of these views of the West alongside the marginalization of others and a cultural sense of superiority.” Wolfgang Huber
But which “culture” can be derived from the Bible and Christian traditions? The stories of the Bible – with the exception of the Old Testament age of kings – all take place in the realm of foreign cultures. The old European, Judeo-Christian, and Greco-Roman roots and traditions all grew, from the very beginning, from a plurality of views and convictions that competed and struggled with one another. The concept of a “Christian West” stands for a completely non-uniform history and is thus not at all useful in delineating one culture and tradition from another. It was indeed this very diversity that led, in an arduous but eventually successful process throughout the course of European history, to the rise of a way of thinking anchored in tolerance and respect. The “other” is then seen not as a threat but as an enrichment and is integrated into the known. This pluralism of culture in European history and the resultant idea of tolerance and equality thus provide a trailblazing example for a global sense of mutual respect that is so urgently needed today.
7. Is Islam a danger to Switzerland?
â€œBut it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears - dissolution, disappearance.â€? Zadie Smith
There are those who would say that Switzerlandâ€™s Muslim population would like to repeal the constitution, end democracy, and proclaim an Islamic state based on Sharia law. Although there is no reason to fear this for Switzerland, this rhetoric, removed from reality, still strikes a political chord. More and more people are afraid of Islam, of people from Arab countries, or even of foreigners in general. These fears are based on a false understanding of Switzerland as an isolated country resistant to modernization in a world of national states with homogenous cultures that close themselves off from one another. There has in fact never been such a country. This, moreover, particularly contradicts the history and self-image of the Swiss Confederation, which has always been characterized as a voluntary association of autonomous and heterogeneous entities. The globalized world, in which people, cultures, and religions have grown ever closer together, actually reflects the model of a global Switzerland, a world in which national law is complemented by globally binding human rights and by international law. The only people who need to fear in this globalized Switzerland are those who are refused a place to call home.
8. What does the Church say about living with people of other religions?
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Matt 25,35
The Christian churches are anchored in a universal, biblical message of peace that extends throughout the history of salvation. This certainty gives way to five specific principles regarding life with people of different religions: 1. An equanimity born of a certainty of faith instead of the suppression of other convictions; 2. The secularization of the state as the precondition for its religious neutrality and the renouncement of the instrumentalization of the state and law for one’s own religious purposes; 3. Respect – and not merely tolerance! – for others as one’s neighbors; 4. The rejection of the view that only a “tit-for-tat” logic of retaliation can serve one’s own political interests; 5. The ability and willingness to “debate the truth”.
9. Why is the Referendum “Against the Construction of Minarets” unacceptable?
“There is no alternative, from a Christian viewpoint, to the unconditional validity of human rights and the right to religious freedom all throughout the world.” Declaration of the three major Swiss churches
The FSPC calls upon the state “for the sake of the state’s statehood” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) to carry out its duties as the “protector of freedom” (Thomas Wipf). The state has the task of protecting the rights of its citizens to their own personality and freedoms, and to take action against any inequalities. The proposed constitutional change would violate the central principle of equality before the law. The FSPC decisively rejects each and every form of state inequality. Discriminatory legislation cannot serve to reduce xenophobia in society but – on the contrary – only to cement it further. The Christian churches speak against this stance of mistrust and marginalization. Jesus’ message “not to be afraid” (Matt. 28:10) also addresses our liberation from the reign of human fear. The FSPC is committed to a dialogue among religions and to meeting with people of different faiths and backgrounds. There is no alternative to working together for a culture of understanding as the only way out of isolation in a world full of mistrust, aggression, and fear.
Why do we need interreligious dialogue and what can we do
to bring it about together?
“A dialogue worthy of its name requires that one not only respect others as people but that one is also able to value their convictions for what they are. ... It will become more and more important to know the historical, social, and cultural backgrounds of religions in order to get to know both their uncontroversial positive sides as well as their dark sides, while supporting an understanding of the Holy Scripture that follows as the primary principle of interpretation the verses from Proverbs that state that ‘her ways are ways of pleasantness’ and ‘all her paths are peace’.” Michel Bollag
We live in a society in which people meet and coexist from a variety of backgrounds with different traditions and religious convictions. Diversity leads to new opportunities and perspectives, but also to misunderstandings and conflicts. We do not have the choice of living together or not. We only have the choice of how we are to live together. The FSPC chooses dialogue over confrontation and marginalization. Interreligious dialogue opens up opportunities for people of different faiths to meet, get to know one another, and to share with one another, choosing encounter over mistrust and prejudice. Respect for those with other convictions and tolerance of their religions must not, however, ever entail glossing over differences and contractions. Interreligious dialogue, on the contrary, thrives on a respectful and serious dispute over the truth of our different convictions. Interreligious dialogue does not lead to a single homogenous religion but instead teaches us to understand differences, to respect the beliefs of others, and to embrace the view that every individual has the same right to live in accordance with their religion in freedom and under the full protection of law.
Further information and materials can be accessed at www.sek.ch ďƒ Topics A-Z ďƒ Minaret Initiative