January 8, 2010 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 579

Worldwide Muslim Reactions to Switzerland's Anti-Minaret Referendum

January 8, 2010 | By B. Chernitsky*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 579


The November 29, 2009 Swiss referendum on a ban on the construction of mosque minarets –which passed with a 57.5% majority – was held after Swiss far-right parties obtained the required 100,000 signatures; four of the country's 26 cantons refused to hold the referendum. Switzerland, which currently has four mosques with minarets, has a Muslim population of about 400,000 (or 5% of the population), mostly from the Balkans and Turkey.

The referendum results shocked the country's government ministers and Christian clerics, as well as Muslims worldwide, especially considering that preliminary polls had indicated less support for the initiative. Overall, Muslims reacted either with fear of persecution in the West and of interreligious war, or with calls for lawful protests against the referendum results. Some also spoke of the Muslims' contribution to Islamophobia and of the fact that attitudes towards Christians in Muslim countries are no better. Many articles stated that the minaret was not a fundamental precept of Islam, a point made by officials at the Al-Azhar Institute of Islamic Research even prior to the referendum.[1]

Reactions in Switzerland and Europe

The Swiss government published an announcement in Arabic stating that the four minarets in the country would remain in place and that Muslims were permitted to perform their religious ceremonies.[2] Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said, "This decision endangers state security... and is likely to cause additional provocations... It is a humiliation that sparks extremism."[3]

Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said, "The vote is an expression of fear [on the part of some] of the people, and of the concern regarding the extremist streams that reject the traditions of our country."[4]

Swiss Green Party leader Ueli Leuenberger said that his party would consider filing a lawsuit in the European Court of Human Rights over "the violation of freedom of religion."[5] The Vatican announced its support for the position of the Swiss clerics, who considered the ban on minaret construction as a grave injury to freedom of religion.[6] French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner expressed his astonishment at this "failure to accept the other,"[7] and other European heads of state voiced amazement at the referendum results.

Reactions in the Muslim World

1. Fear of Interreligious War, Calls for Protests

The Referendum Results – Insult, Humiliation, and Racism

Several leaders in the Arab and Muslim world condemned the referendum results. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki warned, in a December 4 phone conversation with his Swiss counterpart, of the consequences of anti-Muslim measures. He noted that the referendum results would harm Switzerland's image in Muslim public opinion as a pioneer of human rights, and said that he hoped that the country would find constitutional ways to prevent the decision from being enforced.[8]

Buthaina Sha'ban, political advisor to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, called the referendum results "a fiasco" and said that they reminded her of "the West's Dark Ages, when there were Inquisition courts that took measures against the Muslims, and when books were burned, mosques were destroyed, Muslims were converted to Christianity [by force], and innovators were burned in public or drowned as sorcerers."[9]

A harsh statement was also made by Chakib Makhlouf, chairman of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe, who said that the Muslims were being persecuted just like the Jews in Nazi Germany: "The atmosphere of racism we are currently facing as Muslims is identical to the atmosphere faced by the Jews before the outbreak of World War II, under the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler – the only difference is that now the Muslims are the target." He added that the greatest danger was that the persecution of the Muslims would not be direct, like the Nazis' persecution of the Jews, but indirect, conducted "in the guise of democracy."[10] The secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, described the minaret ban as "a new example of the rising hatred in Europe against Islam and the Muslims on the part of extremist right-wing groups."[11] Egyptian Chief Mufti 'Ali Gum'a said that the ban was "a humiliation to Muslims worldwide,"[12] and the Saudi daily Al-Madina described it as another in a long series of insults to Islam by extremists in the West.[13]

Al-Jazeera TV host Faisal Al-Qassem said that the ban reflected the growing power of the extreme right in Europe, which was persecuting the Muslims using the very same methods and arguments that the Nazis had used against the Jews. He criticized Europe for not doing enough to stop this persecution: "I do not know why the Europeans have not learned [the lesson of] their recent history. Less than 60 years ago, Europe was the main battleground of World War II... I commend the Europeans and Americans for standing fast against the Nazi demon [back then] and defending the persecuted Jewish minority in Germany and other European countries. [But] it is alarming that today, the Europeans have almost [completely] forgotten their frightening recent past, and have allowed the extreme right to resurface under various names. This new [extreme] right, which reminds us of the Fascist and Nazi trends that [once took over] the White continent [i.e., Europe] and destroyed it, is now rapidly spreading through Europe. Proof of this is the fact that the party which was behind the Swiss referendum belongs to the far right and its actions exude a distinct Fascist odor. History is repeating itself, [and only the target is different]: while Hitler's Nazis heaped their hatred upon the Jews, today's right-wing [elements] are targeting the Muslims by the same methods and using the same arguments that the Nazis used to justify their attacks on the Jews..."[14]

Editorials in the Qatari daily Al-Raya presented the Swiss decision as a deliberate provocation against the Muslims, motivated by racism. The daily's chief editor, Saleh bin 'Afsan al-Kuwari, wrote: "Sadly, the Swiss referendum was held at the same time as this year's Hajj, while the Muslims were celebrating the blessed holiday of 'Id Al-Adha. That is why we in the Muslim world regard it as a deliberate [insult] to the Muslims' feelings and as an organized [campaign] to spread racist ideas against them – [acts] which first of all require an apology... From the platform of [this newspaper] Al-Raya I warn and draw attention to the fact that the war of hatred and mad [incitement] against Islam and the Muslims might spread [even further]."[15]

Another Al-Raya editorial stated: "[This] European [act of] hostility against Islam is not the first and will not be the last. The offensive cartoons of Allah's esteemed Messenger, and the Muslim graves that were desecrated with crosses and Nazi slogans, are the best proof that hatred is deeply rooted in the European societies, and that the Swiss nation is part of a racist European [society] that hates the other... [The ban] shows that the peoples of Europe have turned towards extremism and hatred, and this intensifies our concern for the security of the Muslim community in Europe..."[16]

An article on the Saudi Islamist website stated that the minaret ban was intended to eradicate the Islamic presence in Europe, out of fear of their growing influence there: "The Muslims in Europe are currently being subjected to a planned attack aimed at erasing their identity and [forcing them] to assimilate in Europe's public life, now that their numbers have swelled and they have become a direct danger to that aging continent[17]... Europe is facing a demographic disaster: the Christians may soon become a minority, due to the Muslims' high birth rate and the Christians' declining one... The Swiss minaret crisis is not like previous crises [we have known]: contrary to what some have claimed, it reflects the Muslims' growing influence in Europe rather than their weakness. This time Europe is acting to... defend the essence of its existence and preserve its identity in the face of the growing influx of Muslims that have invaded it year after year.[18]"

Cartoon: The Swiss try to uproot Islam from their country

Cartoonist: Omayya Juha[19]

Cartoon: The minaret ban – a time bomb under the table of interfaith dialogue

Cartoonist: Amjad Rasmi [20]

Warnings against Violent Reactions by Muslims

Libyan Leader Mu'ammar Al-Qaddafi said that the referendum result was an attempt to revive the Crusader wars against the Muslims, and that it served the interests of Al-Qaeda and the terrorists. He said, "We [Muslims] also have an extreme right, just like your extreme right [in Switzerland]."[21] Algerian Interior Minister Nour Al-Din Yazid Zehrouni said that the vote against minaret construction in Switzerland gave Islamic extremists a pretext for clashing with the West.[22]

The International Union of Muslim Scholars issued an announcement warning of the decision's possible repercussions, and calling on the Swiss government to take responsibility for them. It said that one of these consequences would be "the strengthening of the position of the extremist Muslim elements that say [to Muslims], 'The West, which you call for dialogue with and for cooperating with, hates you and persecutes you.'"[23]

The argument that the ban would strengthen extremist elements featured in several newspaper editorials. The London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi stated that the decision was a gift to Al-Qaeda: "... [The referendum result] reveals a fascist tendency that completely contradicts modern European heritage, [which advocates] tolerance [and] respect for the faith and culture of the other... The results of such a referendum... are the best possible gift to organizations such as Al-Qaeda... whose propaganda always focuses on the harm done by the Europeans and the Americans to Islam and the Muslims."[24]

Sati' Nour Al-Din, director of the editorial board of the Lebanese daily Al-Safir, wrote that the referendum results set Switzerland against the Muslims living in it, "who express their desire to integrate into Swiss society more than the other European Muslims – from amongst whom have emerged more terrorists than have emerged from the Islamic countries..."[25]

Hashem Saleh wrote in his Al-Sharq Al-Awsat column that the referendum was an expression of a dangerous "war of symbols": "It can almost be said that the ban on building minarets is a response to the 9/11 attacks, and to the [fall of] the U.S.'s 'crowning glory'– that is, the Twin Towers. A war of symbols is more dangerous than a real war." He added that the European "right-wing" governments' preoccupation with issues such as the hijab or the burqa is intentional, as a distraction from the real problem: foreign workers' unemployment and the discrimination against them. "Most Arab and Muslim communities in Europe ask only for the right to work, to assure a proper quality of life for their children, and to be treated like human beings, like all the other communities... This is what these communities demand most – not the burqa, not the hijab, [and] not even minarets..."[26]

2) Calls for Political Struggle alongside Calls to Accept the Ban

From Lawsuits to Economic Pressure

Muslim clerics and politicians called to fight the decision by legal means, and by economic and tourism boycott. Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, called for Switzerland's Muslim minority to fight "by legitimate parliamentary, legal, and judicial means in the federal and international courts and in the human rights councils to get this decision rescinded." He warned that while today "they are banning minarets, tomorrow they will ban mosques."[27] Egyptian Mufti 'Ali Gum'a called on Swiss Muslims to conduct a dialogue with the Swiss government and to protest against the decision by lawful means.[28] The Saudi daily Al-Madina called on Muslims to stand up and defend Islam by "all rational and cultural means" at their disposal.[29]

Osama Saraya, editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, suggested using democratic, popular means, instead of appealing to governments: "The Muslim minority in Switzerland can be helped to get its rights back by the same democratic means [by which it lost them]... In this way, we will triumph in this affair and win points with [our] civilized behavior – civilized behavior that we will need when we come to talk with these [European] peoples. We need to use 'popular diplomacy' in order to act vis-à-vis the local peoples and civil organizations, instead of appealing to governments that in some cases can do nothing, or so they claim."[30]

Several Muslim politicians and officials called for a boycott against Switzerland. Egemen Bagis, Turkish Minister for EU Affairs and chief negotiator for EU accession, said that Turkey would reconsider depositing its funds in Swiss banks.[31] Egyptian MP Mustafa Bakri called to boycott Swiss goods;[32] 'Abd Al-'Aziz 'Othman Al-Tuwaijri, director-general of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), called on the Islamic countries worldwide to boycott Switzerland commercially and not to visit it for tourism purposes, as well as to withdraw their funds from its banks.[33] Saudi preachers made similar calls.[34]

Minarets Aren't a Foundation of Islam

Muslims who took a more moderate line said that the decision had been a democratic one and therefore had to be respected even if it was not to the Muslims' liking. They also pointed out that minarets were not mandated by the shari'a. The Imam of the Geneva mosque said that the Muslims in Switzerland were being targeted not by the Swiss government or people but by one particular party hostile to Islam, and that they must "respect the decision without accepting it."[35]

The head of the Egyptian community in Switzerland, Dr. Fawzia Al-'Ashmawi, told the daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm: "The Muslims in Switzerland receive all their rights and understand that this decision is the price [one must pay] for real democracy... The [public] call to prayer is banned in Switzerland, as in all other European countries, so there is no need [for minarets] anyway. Moreover, even in Egypt there are mosques without a minaret." She called not to interfere in the internal affairs of the Swiss Muslims and let them resolve the issue quietly, without hysteria, demonstrations, boycotts, and exaggerated reactions.[36]

Other writers likewise pointed out that the minaret is not a foundation of Islam, and that its function of calling the believers to prayer could today be fulfilled in other ways. Hafez Al-Barghouti, editor of the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, wrote: "The minaret is not a foundation of Islam and was not even part of the Prophet's sunna. Its function was to be a tall structure, so that the call for prayer could reach as many people as possible. [At some point] it took a certain architectural form and became a feature of the mosque, but it was [never] considered a religious necessity, because there are other ways to call [people] to prayer, such as loudspeakers, clocks, alarm clocks, etc. So the minaret is only an architectural structure… A ban [on minarets] in Switzerland or in any other country should not justify this uproar, because Switzerland is not a Muslim country…" Al-Barghouti also complained that the Muslims demanded tolerance from the Christians while they themselves do not display the same tolerance: "How can some of us demand that Christian countries treat Muslims better than [the Muslim countries] treat the Christians?... When we fully respect the other, we [will be in a position] to demand the same respect, but not before…"[37]

A columnist for the Al-Ahram daily, 'Abd Al-Mu'ti Ahmad, wrote: "…When the Prophet died, mosques did not have minarets. His mosque was made of palm branches and had a floor of sand. It did not have a minaret. When the Muslims started building minarets, they used Christian builders who based them on church spires. The first who ordered to build a minaret was [Caliph] Al-Walid bin 'Abd Al-Malik, in the Umayyad [Great] Mosque in Damascus…"[38]

The Muslims Must Integrate in Society

Egyptian Endowments Minister Dr. Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq said that the European Muslims must behave reasonably in order to preserve their rights and prove to the Europeans that "they are citizens who promote the interests of their new homeland and are far removed from any [kind of] extremism or negation of the other. [They must prove] and that they are taking bold steps to integrate in society and are actively participating in [their country's] political, social and cultural life, rather than isolating themselves." He added, "The Muslims in Europe must redouble their efforts to put an end to the prejudice and mistaken notions... about Islam and the Muslims."[39]

Al-Ahram columnist Hazem 'Abd Al-Rahman wrote in a similar vein: "Openness [on the part of the Muslims]... will cause others to say, '[The Muslims] are people just like us... and everything that is said about them is untrue'... We must take a lesson from the Muslims' unfortunate handling of the [Danish] cartoon crisis. It is possible that the violent demonstrations, the flag burnings and the threats [back then] aroused more fear than solidarity or understanding."[40]

3. Criticism against the Muslims' Behavior

The Muslims Are to Blame for the Spread of Islamophobia

Some writers contended that it was Muslim extremism that had led to the minaret ban. Mustafa Farahat, a columnist for the Algerian daily Al-Shurouq, wrote: "Switzerland has begun to fear Islam, as have the U.S., France, and Germany, and as will [soon happen] in other European countries. It is we who must seek to improve the image [of Islam] by presenting our faith, as well as the culture that placed us at the helm of the world for many centuries, in a [positive] light, and by being the first to implement the principles in which we theoretically believe but which we do not realize. From now on, we [must stop] wondering about the source of Islamophobia, for it is we who created it in the first place."[41]

Abi Hassan, a columnist on the Syrian website www.all4syria, pointed out that the Western world separates state from religion, while the Muslim world doesn't; therefore one can understand why the Swiss are afraid of their land becoming a Muslim country. "[Their] fear is legitimate considering the behavior of some Islamists in certain European countries," he said. Abi Hassan added that it would be better for the Muslims if Islam did not spread in Europe, because this way, Europe could at least be a safe haven for Muslims fleeing the backwardness and difficulties in their countries.[42]

Cartoon in Egyptian paper:

The man asks: "Why do the Swiss fear us? What have we done?"

The arrows pointing to the woman are labeled: "forbidden to make a sound," "forbidden to acquire education," "may reveal only one eye," "forbidden to wear perfume," "must undergo female circumcision."[43]

Hadir Taher, columnist for the liberal e-daily Elaph, wrote: "Why don't the Muslims [in the West] fight against those who accuse others of heresy and against [Muslim] crime and thievery in Europe and America, where they live?... I call on all the European countries and the U.S. to ban the building of mosques and minarets... because they are not [part of the Muslim] religion. Allah... knows what people feel and say without needing mosques and minarets."[44]

Condemnations of Extremism and Calls for Dialogue

Liberal Qatari journalist Dr. 'Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari condemned the calls to boycott Switzerland and urged the Muslims to reinforce the channels of dialogue: "The calls to impose a political and tourism boycott on Switzerland [and to punish it] by withdrawing funds from its banks and by moving the U.N. institutions [to some other country] may bring [the Muslims] more harm than good. In fact, the Swiss radical Right may exploit these calls to perpetuate the fear of Islam and the Muslims. We must help the [Swiss] Muslims in intelligent ways... We must reinforce the channels of dialogue, instead of demanding to end [the dialogue] on the grounds that it does not help the Muslims at all."[45]

Al-Arabiya Director-General 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed wrote in the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that the Muslim's moderate reaction to the ban was a victory on their part: "The Swiss are one of the most responsible and tolerant peoples in Europe, [and know how] to coexist [with others]. Proof of this is that their society consists of three peoples, speaking German, French and Italian [respectively], and there is no other country in the world where the same [three ethnic groups] have lived peacefully side by side for hundreds of years...

"This time we can sincerely say that the Muslims have managed to do something that they always failed to do in the past, namely to handle a problem [that they perceived as] a political, religious or personal affront or provocation against them. We know that the Muslims generally feel as sense of persecution, sometimes justified and sometimes not... The Muslims lost the [minaret] referendum, but they also won, in that they refrained from burning flags, issuing threats, and holding noisy demonstrations in 40 countries around the globe... The important thing is that Muslim leaderships worldwide is beginning to realize that violent rage in the streets is not the correct [policy], and that it even harms the Muslims' image [instead of improving it]."[46]

*B. Chernitsky is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1], November 2, 2009.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 1, 2009.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 2, 2009.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 1, 2009.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 1, 2009.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 1, 2009.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 1, 2009.

[8], December 5, 2009.

[9] Teshreen (Syria), December 8, 2009.

[10], December 1, 2009.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 1, 2009.

[12] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 30, 2009.

[13] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), December 4, 2009.

[14] Al-Sharq (Qatar), December 20, 2009.

[15] Al-Raya (Qatar), December 2, 2009.

[16] Al-Raya (Qatar), December 1, 2009.

[17] The term "aging continent" refers both to Europe's long history and heritage and to the fact that its population is growing older as a result of its low birth rate.

[18], December 13, 2009. 'Azzam Al-Tamimi, director of the London-based Institute of Islamic Political Thought, compared Swiss politicians to Neo Nazis, and said that Islam liberates the Europeans from "the tragedy of their lives" and from their "lives of stupidity." See MEMRI TV Clip No. 2297,

[19] Al-Raya (Qatar), December 1, 2009.

[20] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 5, 2009.

[21] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 7, 2009.

[22] Al-Hayat (London), December 14, 2009.

[23], December 1, 2009.

[24] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 1, 2009.

[25] Al-Safir (Lebanon), December 1, 2009.

[26] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 7, 2009.

[27], December 1, 2009.

[28] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 30, 2009.

[29] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), December 4, 2009.

[30] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 4, 2009.

[31], December 3, 2009.

[32] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 1, 2009.

[33] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 3, 2009.

[34] Among the preachers were Khaled Al-Shamrani and Ahmad Al-Hassan. Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 8, 2009.

[35] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 1, 2009.

[36] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 6, 2009.

[37] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), December 1, 2009.

[38] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 7, 2009.

[39] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 3, 2009.

[40] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 6, 2009.

[41] Al-Shurouq (Algeria), November 30, 2009.

[42] www.all4syria, November 30, 2009.

[43] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), December 9, 2009.

[44], December 1, 2009.

[45] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), December 7, 2009.

[46] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 2, 2009.

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