Press conference of the Federal Council on the popular initiative "Against the construction of minarets"

The spoken word is imperative
Berne. Speech of Federal Councillor Widmer-Schlumpf, Media Centre Hous of Parliament, 15 october 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On 29 November, Swiss citizens will be asked to vote on three matters, one of which is the popular initiative "Against the construction of minarets". With only a few weeks left before this important vote, I would like to explain why the Federal Council and Parliament resolutely reject the initiative and recommend that you place a No vote in the ballot box.

I am pleased to be able to do this in the company of Mr Jean Studer and Mr Thomas Wipf. Mr Studer is a Cantonal Councillor in the Canton of Neuchâtel and chairman of the Directorate for Justice, Security and Finance. Mr Wipf is chairman of the Swiss Council of Religions and President of the Federal of Swiss Protestant Churches. They will also express their opinions on why the initiative should be rejected.

The popular initiative is intended to prohibit the construction of minarets throughout Switzerland. It seeks to amend Article 72 of the Federal Constitution accordingly. A ban of this kind would clearly be contrary to central values of our society and would be incompatible with fundamental principles and rights that are enshrined in the Federal Constitution. These include freedom of religion and the ban on discrimination. Religious peace in our country would be unnecessarily endangered as a result. Fundamental international human rights conventions would be breached, and Switzerland’s reputation as a country that takes the protection of basic human rights seriously would be damaged.

A minaret ban will not solve any of the problems that are repeatedly cited by the authors of the initiative. On the contrary, it would create numerous problems and difficulties.

The authors of the initiative claim that a ban on the construction of minarets will not restrict freedom of religion because the Islamic faith is not being prohibited. This argument is wrong. The fundamental right of freedom of religion guaranteed in Article 15 of the Federal Constitution protects not only personal religious convictions, but also the public avowal of one’s faith. This not only includes the wearing of religious symbols or clothing, but also the construction of religious buildings that make one’s own faith visible.

The authors of the initiative also claim that minarets have nothing to do with religion, because they are not mentioned in the Koran. But no one would think to doubt the religious character of church towers simply because the Bible says nothing specific about them.

The general ban on the construction of minarets that the initiative is seeking not only limits freedom of religion, but does so in a discriminatory manner: the initiative is directed exclusively towards Muslims in Switzerland. In contrast, all other religious communities remain free, subject to the relevant laws, to erect whatever religious buildings they choose.

This type of ban on the construction of minarets is not only contrary to the provisions of the Federal Constitution. It is also in breach of fundamental human rights conventions that are binding on Switzerland. Above all, it would infringe the provisions on freedom of religion and the ban on discrimination contained in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR II). Switzerland is responsible under international law for ensuring that these agreements are complied with. It would be incomprehensible for Switzerland of all nations, a country that campaigns internationally for the respect of human rights and of humanitarian international law, to tolerate discriminatory breaches of fundamental rights in its own back yard.

Some have also said that as long as Islamic states discriminate against other religions, Muslims in our country should not be able to enjoy unreserved freedom of religion.

Sadly it is true that religious minorities in certain Islamic states, though not only in these states, are in some cases subject to serious discrimination and persecution. But I ask you this: do we really want to align our values and our system of basic rights with such standards? What is wrong never becomes right simply because that wrong has been permitted somewhere else! Let us instead do what we can to see our own high standards of basic rights established in other states, rather than reduce those standards here at home.

What the authors of the initiative are seeking to achieve remains unclear. It is argued that a ban on the construction of minarets will be a rebuff to those people who want to introduce Sharia law in Switzerland. An even more sweeping claim is that the islamisation of Switzerland must be stopped, with reference being made to the growing number of Muslims. Such remarks are an insult to the vast majority of Muslims in Switzerland, who accept our legal system and social order without reservation and practise their religion peacefully.

We are aware that there are people among us who abuse Islam in order to act overtly or covertly against Switzerland’s political and social order or to propagate a different legal system, such as Sharia.

Switzerland is not immune to the threats of Islamic fundamentalist extremists. The Confederation and the cantons, however, have suitable means to counter such threats. The Federal Act on Measures to Safeguard Internal Security provides the Confederation with instruments that can be used to recognise the dangers at an early stage. The authorities may refuse entry to foreign nationals who do not respect our legal system or social order, or have such persons expelled. In the case of Islamic preachers, this has already been done on several occasions.

The initiative, in contrast, is wholly unsuitable as a means to counter such threats. A ban on the construction of minarets will have no effect whatsoever on the number of Islamic extremists in Switzerland. Anyone who thinks that a ban of this type will in some way reduce religious fanaticism is completely mistaken; on the contrary, it would probably give a boost to the religious fanatics.

In my view, it is important to remember that there are already restrictions on the construction of minarets. Each minaret requires planning permission. This will be granted only if the provisions of planning law, cantonal and communal building regulations and regulations on preserving local character are complied with. The local noise abatement regulations and the legislation on environmental protection also apply. This means, for example, that planning permission for the minarets in Wangen by Olten and in Langenthal was granted only on condition that no call to prayer was made, whether by a muezzin or by loudspeaker.

The blanket ban on construction that is being sought by the authors of the initiative disregards the cantons and communes. The cantons and communes know best what the needs of the local population and the various religious communities are. That is why they should continue to decide in the tried and tested manner on what religious buildings, including minarets, should be built. Practical experience has shown that they are more than able to do this without the need for any interference from the Confederation.

And it is not only that the initiative fails to solve any problems. It is counterproductive, as it endangers religious peace in Switzerland. Here I would like to remind you of the special religious provisions in the Federal Constitution, which in some cases remained in force for more than one hundred years. It was only in 2001 that we succeeded in repealing the diocese article, the last of these specific provisions. In the very place in the Constitution where that diocese article until recently stood, some now wish to insert a ban on the construction of minarets. We would be taking a step back into the 19th century!

We demand that Muslims in Switzerland respect our legal system and social order in full. No one can call on religious rules to justify their disregard for state obligations or prohibitions. If we ask this of Muslim people, then we must treat them in the same way with regard to freedom of religion as all other inhabitants of our country and we must not discriminate against them in the exercise of their religion. This is the core principle of freedom of religion, which is what makes religious peace in Switzerland possible. We neither wish nor can we afford to foolishly jeopardise this achievement. It is unacceptable to place all the Muslims living among us under a general suspicion of religious fanaticism, but this is what this initiative ultimately does.

Respect and openness towards those who hold different beliefs should be demanded of Muslims, as it must be of all other religious and ideological communities in our country. There is no place for naive state tolerance of religious fanatics. However, we are duty bound to give fair and legally equal treatment to those who respect our legal system. The Federal Council and a large majority of members of Parliament are committed to this. We therefore recommend voters to reject the popular initiative against the construction of minarets and to vote No on 29 November.

Last modification 15.10.2009

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