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The Ahmadiyya mosque in Zürich

The Minaret controversy in Switzerland refers to construction of minarets, which has been subject to legal and political controversy in Switzerland during the 2000s.

In a November 2009 referendum, a constitutional amendment banning the construction of new minarets was approved by 57.5% of the participating voters.[1] Only four of the 26 Swiss cantons,[2] mostly in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, opposed the initiative.

This referendum originates from action on 1 May 2007, when a group of right of centre politicians mainly from the Swiss People's Party and the Federal Democratic Union, the Egerkinger Kommittee ("Egerkingen Committee") launched a federal popular initiative that sought a constitutional ban on minarets. The Swiss government recommended that the proposed amendment be rejected as inconsistent with basic principles of the constitution.[3]

As of the date of the 2009 vote, there were four minarets in Switzerland, attached to mosques in Zürich, Geneva, Winterthur and Wangen bei Olten. These existing minarets are not affected by the ban.




Legal dispute

Minaret at the mosque of the local Turkish cultural association in Wangen bei Olten, the initial motivation for the popular initiative.

The Swiss minaret controversy began in a small municipality in the northern part of Switzerland in 2005. The contention involved the Turkish cultural association in Wangen bei Olten, which applied for a construction permit to erect a 6-metre-high minaret on the roof of its Islamic community centre. The project faced opposition from surrounding residents, who had formed a group to prevent the tower's erection. The Turkish association claimed that the building authorities improperly and arbitrarily delayed its building application. They also believed that the members of the local opposition group were motivated by religious bias. The Communal Building and Planning Commission rejected the association's application. The applicants appealed to the Building and Justice Department, which reverted the decision and remanded. As a consequence of that decision, local residents (who were members of the group mentioned) and the commune of Wangen brought the case before the Administrative Court of the Canton of Solothurn, but failed with their claims. On appeal the Federal Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the lower court. The 6-metre (20 ft)-high minaret was eventually erected in July 2009.[4]

Political dispute

From 2006 until 2008, members of the Swiss People's Party and the Federal Democratic Union launched several cantonal initiatives against the erection of minarets. The cantonal citizenry never had the opportunity to vote on it because all cantonal parliaments held the initiatives unconstitutional and therefore void.[5]


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Related events since 2001

In 2007, in response to the political defeats described above, the Egerkinger committee launched a federal popular initiative against minarets. The committee's proposed amendment to article 72 of the Swiss Federal Constitution read: "The building of minarets is prohibited."[6]

In Switzerland, federal popular initiatives are not subject to judicial review, as they amend the federal constitution (whereas cantonal initiatives can be challenged in court for violating federal law). Promoters of popular initiatives have 18 months to collect at least 100,000 signatures.[7] If they succeed, the initiative is put before the Swiss citizenry in a national vote. Both federal and cantonal initiatives are common in Switzerland, resulting in many referendum votes each year.


Egerkinger committee

The Egerkinger committee is made up of members of the Swiss People's Party and the Federal Democratic Union. The committee opines that the interests of residents, who are disturbed by specific kinds of religious land uses, are to be taken seriously. Moreover, it argues that Swiss residents should be able to block unwanted and unusual projects such as the erection of Islamic minarets. The committee alleges, inter alia, that "the construction of a minaret has no religious meaning. Neither in the Qur'an, nor in any other holy scripture of Islam is the minaret expressly mentioned at any rate. The minaret is far more a symbol of religious-political power claim [...]."[6] The initiators justify their point of view by stating parts of later Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's 1997 speech, which holds: "Mosques are our barracks, domes our helmets, minarets our bayonets, believers our soldiers. This holy army guards my religion."[8] Ulrich Schluer, who is one of the Egerkinger committee’s most prominent exponents, states in this respect: "A minaret has nothing to do with religion: It just symbolises a place where Islamic law is established."[9] The members of the Egerkinger committee included, among others, Ulrich Schluer; Christian Waber; Walter Wobmann; Jasmin Hutter; Oskar Freysinger; Eric Bonjour; Sylvia Flückiger; Lukas Reimann; Natalie Rickli.[6]

Poster campaign

The committee's campaign featured provocative posters featuring a drawing of a Muslim woman in an abaya and niqab, next to a number of minarets on a Swiss flag pictured in a way "reminiscent of missiles".[10] The Swiss People's Party also published a similar poster with the minarets protruding through a Swiss flag.[11] A few days before the election, campaigners drove a vehicle near Geneva Mosque imitating call to prayer using loudspeakers.[12][13]


The British newspaper The Times cited support of the minaret ban by "radical feminists" who oppose the oppression of women in Islamic societies.[14] Among these were noted feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali who in December gave her support for the ban with the article titled "Swiss ban on minarets was a vote for tolerance and inclusion".[15] The Times further reported that Swiss women supported the ban, in pre-election polling, by a greater percentage than did Swiss men.

Society of St Pius X

The traditionalist Society of St Pius X (SSPX), which has its headquarters at Ecône in Switzerland, supported the ban on minarets, denouncing opposition to the ban by some Catholic bishops:

the "confusion maintained by certain Vatican II Council authorities between tolerating a person, whatever his religion and tolerating an ideology that is incompatible with Christian tradition."[16]

and explaining its support of the ban:

"The Islamic doctrine cannot be accepted when you know what it is all about. How can one expect to condone the propagation of an ideology that encourages husbands to beat their wives, the “believer” to murder the “infidel”, a justice that uses body mutilation as punishment, and pushes to reject Jews and Christians?[16]

Writing in the The Tablet, Christa Pongratz-Lippitt & Robert Mickens supported the Swiss bishops opposition to the ban and characterized the Society of St Pius X as being "overjoyed" at the outcome of the vote.[17][18]


On the evening of the vote, demonstrations against the result were held in Switzerland's major cities. The banner beneath the makeshift minarets reads: "Integrate rather than exclude."

The Swiss Government

The Swiss Federal Council opposes a building ban on minarets. It says that popular initiative against the construction of minarets has been submitted in accordance with the applicable regulations, but infringes guaranteed international human rights and contradicts the core values of the Swiss Federal Constitution. It believes a ban would endanger peace between religions and would not help to prevent the spread of fundamentalist Islamic beliefs. In its opinion the Federal Council therefore recommends that the Swiss people reject the initiative.[19] The Federal Commission against Racism criticised the people's initiative. It claims that the initiative defames Muslims and violates religious freedom, which is protected by fundamental and human rights and the ban on discrimination.[20]


The Federal Assembly recommended (by 129 to 50 votes) in spring of 2009 that the Swiss people reject the minaret ban initiative.[21]

Non-governmental organisations

The Society for Minorities in Switzerland calls for freedom and equality. It started an internet-based campaign in order to gather as many symbolic signatures as possible against a possible minaret ban.[22] Amnesty International warned the minaret ban aims to exploit fears of Muslims and encourage xenophobia for political gains. "This initiative claims to be a defense against rampant Islamification of Switzerland," Daniel Bolomey, the head of Amnesty’s Swiss office, said in a statement cited by Agence France-Presse (AFP). "But it seeks to discredit Muslims and defames them, pure and simple."[23] Economiesuisse finds an absolute construction ban would hit Swiss foreign interests negatively. It points to the fact that only the launch of the initiative caused turmoil in the Islamic world.[citation needed] The Swiss-based "Unser Recht" association publishes a number of articles against a minaret ban.[24] In autumn 2009, the Swiss Journal of Religious Freedom launched a public campaign for religious harmony, security, and justice in Switzerland. It distributed several thousand stickers in the streets of Zürich for the right to religious freedom.[25].

Religious organisations

Catholic bishops oppose a minaret ban. A statement from the Swiss Bishops Conference said that a ban would hinder interreligious dialogue and added that the construction and operation of minarets were already regulated by Swiss building codes. The statement requested that "the initiative to be rejected is based on our Christian values and the democratic principles in our country."[26] The official journal of the Catholic Church in Switzerland publishes a series of articles on the minaret controversy.[27] The Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches holds that the popular initiative is not about minarets, but is rather an expression of the initiators’ concern and fear of Islam. It views a minaret ban as a wrong approach to overcome such objections.[28] The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities are also against any ban on building minarets. Says Dr Herbert Winter, the president of the Federation: “As Jews we have our own experience. For centuries we were excluded: we were not allowed to construct synagogues or cupola roofs. We do not want that kind of exclusion repeated.” [29]. Many other religious organisations find the idea of a complete minaret ban as lamentable.[30] These are: the Association of Evangelical Free Churches and Communities in Switzerland; the Swiss Evangelical Alliance; the Old Catholic Church in Switzerland; the Covenant of Swiss Baptists; the Salvation Army; the Federation of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Switzerland; the Orthodox Diocese the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople; the Serbian Orthodox Church in Switzerland; and the Anglican Church in Switzerland.[30].

Individual legal experts

Marcel Stüssi argues that any ban would be incompatible with articles of international law to which Switzerland is a signatory. In any case, cantonal zoning laws already prohibit the construction of buildings that do not match their surroundings. "Right-wing initiatives like the minaret one can misuse the system," says Stüssi.[31] He calls the initiative "obsolete and unnecessary" but adds that the public discourse on the issue could put Switzerland in a positive light, at least for the majority who at this point oppose a ban. In July 2008, before the popular initiative, he argued that "crisis always creates an opportunity. A popular vote against a proposed ban would be the highest declaration for the recognition of the Swiss Muslim community."[32] "It would also be an expressed statement that anybody is equally subject to the law and to the political process," Stüssi said in an interview with World Radio Switzerland.[33] Heinrich Koller, states that "Switzerland must abide by international law because both systems together form a unity."[34] Giusep Nay states that from an objective viewpoint jus cogens is to be read and given effect in association with fundamental norms of international law. According to Nay, this interpretation means that any state action must be in accordance with fundamental material justice, and applies not only to interpretations of applicable law, but also to new law.[34] Erwin Tanner sees the initiative as breaching not only the constitutionally entrenched right to religious freedom, but also the right to freedom of expression, enjoyment of property, and equality.[35] The editorial board of the Revue de Droit Suisse called for invalidation of the initiative as "it appears that the material content of popular initiatives is subject to ill-considered draftsmanship because the drafters are affected by particular emotions that merely last for snatches."[34]


The results of the November 2009 referendum by canton. Red indicates opposition to the ban of minarets, green support of the ban.

In a referendum on 29 November 2009, the amendment, which needed a double majority to pass, was approved by 57.5% (1 534 054 citizens[36]) of the voters and by 19½ cantons out of 23. Geneva, Vaud and Neuchâtel, all of which are French speaking cantons, voted against the ban (59.7%, 53.1% and 50.9% respectively). The canton of Basel-City, which has half a cantonal vote and the largest Muslim community of Switzerland, also rejected the ban by 51.6%. The voter turnout was 53.4%.[37]

At the district level, the initiative failed to find a majority in 16 districts (not including Basle-City and Geneva which are not divided into districts): canton of Vaud: Lausanne, Ouest lausannois, Lavaux-Oron, Nyon, Morges, Riviera-Pays-d'Enhaut; canton of Neuchâtel: Neuchâtel, Boudry, La Chaux-de-Fonds; canton of Fribourg: Sarine; canton of Jura: Delémont, Franches-Montagnes; canton of Zurich: Zurich, Meilen; canton of Berne: Berne; canton of Solothurn: Solothurn.[38]

The cities of Zurich and Berne along with Geneva and Basel also showed a slight majority opposed to the ban, uniting the four largest Swiss cities in rejecting the initiative. The canton of Zurich as a whole, however, voted 52% yes. The highest percentage of votes in favour of the ban were counted in Appenzell Innerrhoden (71%) followed by Glarus (69%), Ticino (68%) and Thurgau (68%).

The Swiss Green Party have declared that in their opinion, the ban introduces a contradiction into the Swiss constitution, which also contains a paragraph which guarantees freedom of religion and they have announced their intention to appeal to the European Court on Human Rights on the matter.[39]

Aftermath of the referendum and implementation of the ban

On 8 December, a mock minaret was erected over an industrial storage facility in Bussigny, in protest against the referendum outcome.[40]

The ban on new minarets may be put to the test in the case of a pending project of building a minaret for a mosque in Langenthal, canton of Berne. The Islamic community of Langenthal has announced their intention of taking their case to the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland and if necessary further to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The attorney of the community has also announced doubts on whether the ban can be taken to affect the Langenthal project because the application for planning permission had been handed to the authorities in 2006, it may be argued that the ban cannot be taken to apply to this project ex post facto. On the other hand, Bernese officials and Rainer Schweizer, law professor at St. Gallen University, have expressed their opinion that the ban renders the Langenthal project obsolete.[41]

Whether the Langenthal mosque is affected may depend on the details of the eventual implementation. According to Alexander Ruch, professor of building law at ETH Zurich, there is so far no official definition of minarets, leaving open the handling of hypothetical cases such as the chimney of a factory building that is converted into a mosque.[42] In the case of Langenthal it has even been argued that the planned structure is a minaret-like tower rather than a minaret. In fact, calls to prayer have been a frequent argument against minarets, and the planned tower in Langenthal cannot be used for that purpose.[43] In the case of the Islamic center in Frauenfeld, canton of Thurgau, there is a ventilation shaft that was adorned with a sheet metal cone topped with a crescent moon. The Frauenfeld city coucil has declined treating the structure as a "minaret", saying that it had been officially declared a ventilation shaft, and that the added crescent moon had not been giving cause for comment during the six years since its installation.[44]

International Reactions

The ban provoked reactions from within Switzerland and rest of the world.[45][46]


  •  France - Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was reported as saying that he was "slightly shocked" by the referendum, and "I hope Switzerland will change this decision fast".
  •  Germany - Senior Parliament Member Wolfgang Bosbach stated that criticism of the ban would be "counterproductive", and that the ban reflected a fear of growing Islamization, a fear which "must be taken seriously".
  •  Sweden - Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt stated that "It's an expression of quite a bit of prejudice and maybe even fear, but it is clear that it is a negative signal in every way, there's no doubt about it". He also stated that "Normally Sweden and other countries have city planners that decide this kind of issue. To decide this kind of issue in a referendum seems very strange to me".
  •  the Netherlands - On the other side, partly positive reactions came from the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch Freedom Party is now aiming at making a similar referndum possible in the Netherlands as he told the Dutch daily "Volkskrant".[47]

Muslim world

  •  Egypt - The Grand Mufti of Eypt, Ali Gomaa, stated that "This proposal is not considered just an attack on freedom of beliefs, but also an attempt to insult the feelings of the Muslim community in and outside Switzerland".
  •  Turkey - Turkish President Abdullah Gul called the ban "shameful". Turkish State Minister Egemen Bagis called on Muslims to withdraw their money from Swiss banks, stating that "I hope this decision will prompt our Muslim brothers who keep their money and investments in Swiss banks to review their decision. The doors of the Turkish banking sector are always open to them."[49]

See also


  1. ^ Minaret result seen as "turning point". swissinfo, 29 November 2009. Accessed 29 November 2009
  2. ^ Swiss Approve Constitutional Ban on Mosque Minarets. FoxNews, Retrieved November 30, 2009
  3. ^ Bundesrat: Minarett-Initiative widerspricht Verfassung, DRS, 15 October 2009.
  4. ^ Media Information of the Federal Supreme Court
  5. ^ Dailytalk Forum für Politik und Gesellschaft
  6. ^ a b c Website of the initiative committee
  7. ^ Official website of the Swiss government, explanation of popular initiatives
  8. ^ Le minaret et sa signification (French), Comité d'initiative contre la construction de minarets. Translation from French flyer.
  9. ^ Swissinfo as of 3 May 2007
  10. ^ according to The Independent, CNN, BBC, Reuters and AljazeeraSwiss vote to ban minaret construction CNN, 29 November 2009; Switzerland to vote on plan to ban minarets BBC, 27 November 2009; Swiss voters back ban on minarets in referendum Reuters, 29 November 2009<; Minaret ban wins Swiss support Aljazeera, 30 November 2009
  11. ^ Examples of posters pro/con
  12. ^ [1]
  13. ^ [2]
  14. ^ Women lead Swiss in vote to ban minarets
  15. ^ Ali, Ayaan Hirsi (5 December 2009). The Christian Science Monitor. 
  16. ^ a b "Switzerland: Constitutional ban on the building of minarets". Documentation Information Catholiques Internationales. 2009-12-23. 
  17. ^ Pongratz-Lippitt, Christa; Robert Mickens (2009-12-05). "Church officials across Europe express alarm at Swiss minaret ban". The Tablet. 
  18. ^ Ivereigh, Austen (2009-12-06). "SSPX 'overjoyed' at Swiss minaret ban". America: In All Things Our Group Blog. 
  19. ^ Official statement by the Federal Council as of 28 August 2008
  20. ^ Official statement by the Federal Commission against Racism as of 24 October 2008
  21. ^ Official statement by the Swiss parliamentary commission
  22. ^ Societé pour les minorites en Suisse
  23. ^ Report on Amnesty International
  24. ^
  25. ^ The Journal of Religious Freedom 09 Campaign
  26. ^ Swissinfo as of 10 September 2009
  27. ^ Schweizerische Kirchenzeitung, Article by Marcel Stüssi
  28. ^ Official statement by the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches
  29. ^ Controversy: Minaret debate angers Swiss Muslims Euronews, November 19th, 2009
  30. ^ a b Statement released by the Evangelical Methodist Church
  31. ^ Will Switzerland vote to Ban Minarets on Mosques? Time/CNN on 3 November 2009
  32. ^ Swissinfo interview with Marcel Stüssi on 8 July 2008
  33. ^ World Radio Switzerland interview with Marcel Stüssi on 10 July 2008
  34. ^ a b c Brill, Banning of Minarets, Religion and Human Rights Volume 3, Number 2, September 2008
  35. ^ Schweizerische Kirchenzeitung as of 17 September 2009
  36. ^ Volksinitiative vom 08.07.2008 'Gegen den Bau von Minaretten'
  37. ^ Minaret result seen as "turning point". swissinfo, 29 November 2009. Accessed 29 November 2009
  38. ^ official results, Federal Statistical Office
  39. ^ NZZ 30 November 2009
  40. ^ Swiss businessman builds minaret in protest
  41. ^ NZZ, 30 November 2009
  42. ^ Wann ist ein Minarett ein Minarett?, 20 Minuten.
  43. ^ Das ist gar kein Minarett!, Blick.
  44. ^ 20 Minuten 5 October 2009; Thurgauer Zeitung 19 September 2009; Zehn Zentimeter Minarett-Initiative NZZ, 14 November 2009.
  45. ^ Swiss ban on minarets sparks international controversy
  46. ^ Europe unites to deplore Swiss ban on minarets
  47. ^
  48. ^ NZZ 26 February 2010; Yahoo News, 25 February 2010; Colonel Gaddafi calls for jihad against Switzerland World condemns Gaddafi's call for jihad against Switzerland The Daily Telegraph, 25 February 2010.
  49. ^ Turkey calls on Muslims to withdraw money from Swiss banks

Further reading

  • Banning of Minarets: Addressing the Validity of a Controversial Swiss Popular Initiative, by Marcel Stüssi, research fellow at the University of Lucerne.

External links


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