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Why the minaret ban?

I would
like to try and throw additional light on the motives that led a majority of
Swiss voters to a surprise acceptance, on November 29, of an initiative
forbidding the construction of future minarets – already commented on by
Russell Powell in his entry on this very blog yesterday. Some supporters of the
initiative, such as far-right politician Ulrich Schlüer, who co-launched it
(and was already notorious for his questionable campaign in 2004 against simplified
naturalisation procedures), might simply want to prevent any minority with a
cultural and religious background different from their own from expanding and
expressing itself. Others might have been misled into thinking that all Muslims
are extremists, supporting terrorist attacks. Yet I also suspect that a
significant proportion of those who endorsed the minaret ban, while not being
fundamentally hostile to Islam, might have been motivated by the worry that the
further expansion of the Muslim community in Switzerland (and Europe in
general) poses a threat to certain core values of Western liberal democracies,
such as gender equality, freedom of speech, and the separation between church
and state.


Such a
worry is probably more difficult to argue against than those previously
mentioned, for it need not be prompted by the actions of people typically considered
religious extremists or terrorists, as evidenced in the past few years by the
attempt by some clerics to prevent the performance of Voltaire’s play Mahomet
, the Muhammad cartoons controversy,
or parental requests to have their children exempted from biology classes or
swimming lessons on religious grounds, for instance. But while it is legitimate
to want to uphold secular, liberal principles the face of pressures from
religious circles (whether Muslim, Christian, or others), it seems not only
unfair, but self-contradictory to try to achieve this aim by going against a
key principle of liberal democracy, that of freedom of religion – as the
minaret ban precisely does.


proponents of the initiative have argued that it did not infringe on religious
freedom, as Muslims would still be able to practice their religion with or
without minarets. But obviously this ignores the fact that the minaret ban
restrains the capacity for Muslims to manifest their faith, in this case via
the architectural arrangement of their places of worship, and the exercise of
this capacity is partly what freedom of religion is meant to protect – which is
why the compatibility of the initiative with international law has been called
into question (see here and here).


and his colleagues have made the absurd claim (in their contribution to the
pre-election leaflet) that minarets “have no religious function”, but are only
a symbol of a claim to political power. But obviously one main function of
minarets is to serve as a visible sign for Muslims of the presence of a place
of worship, as church steeples signal the presence of a Christian place of
worship. (The other main function of minarets is to serve as a vantage point
for the call to prayer by the muezzin
, which admittedly might pose a problem from a secularist
perspective, but one that could in principle have been solved without a ban.)
One might as well argue that church steeples have no religious function, and
that eradicating them would not in any way infringe on the right for Christians
to practice their religion freely, as they could go on doing so even if
churches went out of existence completely.


Western liberal democracies
need to work out a legal system that adequately protects the secular ethical and political values to which they are committed from religious
interference – which does sometimes come from the growing European Muslim
community, but also from the dominant Christian community, too. Even so, it is
disappointing that misleading arguments seem to have persuaded most Swiss voters to forfeit the principle
according to which all religious communities are welcome to practice their
faith as long as they respect Western democratic values, and to conclude instead
that the only way to protect those values in the future was to renounce one of
them with regard to the treatment of a particular religious minority – thus leading
to a discriminatory decision which can only provide grist to the mill of radical

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Michelle Hutchinson

    I question the assumption that minarets are a way of manifesting faith which in no way harms secular society. Consider why buildings of worship often have such tall towers. If it were so that they were easy to find, hospitals and other important buildings would be built with towers. The towers are to show God’s power over mankind, to awe people and encourage them to pray. In a way, they resemble huge architectural advertisements. They are often beautiful, and many non-religious people, or those of other religions, may appreciate them for being so. However, it is equally intelligible to find their presence oppressive, because they are (visually) loudly pushing a message which one may not believe. What is so wrong about the Swiss decision, then, is not that a secular nation would choose to limit religious freedom when it manifests itself architecture designed to be taller and more impressive than its surroundings, but that it would only do so in the case of Islam. The reason of their doing so may be in part that even those who are not Christian are sufficiently used to church spires that they do not see them as deliberately advocating their religion in the way that they think minarets do, though this difference is illusory.

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