Some religions are more welcome than others
If you’re a Sikh, Hindu or Buddhist in Switzerland and want to build a temple, no problem; if you’re a Muslim and want to put up a minaret, you’d better start praying.
For while some non-native religions have proved easy bedfellows for the Swiss, others – notably Islam – have found it more difficult to be accepted.
So much so in the case of Islam that Swiss Muslims currently face the prospect of seeing the construction of minarets put to a nationwide vote.
The rightwing campaign to ban minarets, launched with October’s parliamentary elections in mind, follows local opposition in a handful of Swiss-German towns.
One of these, Wangen in canton Solothurn, lies just a few kilometres from the Wat Thai centre, home of the Buddhist faith in Switzerland. Four years ago a new Buddhist temple costing SFr9 million ($7.35 million) opened on the site.
Even closer to Wangen, the commune of Trimbach last year approved plans for the construction of a Hindu temple for the local Tamil community.
A similar sense of schizophrenia exists in neighbouring canton Bern where plans to construct a minaret in Langenthal ran into trouble. The same commune is home to a sizeable Sikh temple, built in the traditional style.
While there were a few “obstacles” along the way, notes the temple’s website, there were no problems when it came to erecting the domes.
Islam a threat?
For Samuel-Martin Behloul, research assistant at the department for the study of religions at Lucerne University, this disparity is principally down to perception: Islam is seen as a threat.
“Islam is presented as the absolute opposite in religious and cultural terms to the fundamentals of Swiss and European society. There is a problem of perception post-9/11, and it is seen as a threat unlike other non-native religions,” he said.
The current state of play is a source of great sadness for Hisham Maizar, president of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland.
Maizar, who sits on the Swiss Council of Religions, has lived in Switzerland for 40 years and says discrimination towards Muslims has never been as strong.
“It makes me feel very sad. People are not being open-minded,” he said. “They are afraid of Islam and afraid of Muslims, but it is not we who are responsible for these terrible events in other parts of the world. We are not extremists.”
“Before 9/11 we were welcomed here and there was good interfaith dialogue. But afterwards the picture changed completely. We felt we had to justify that we were not terrorists.”
Alfred Donath, president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, says a big increase numbers, coupled with a failure to fully integrate, also goes against the country’s Muslims.
The 2000 census showed their numbers had more than doubled over the previous decade to 310,000. It is estimated that this figure now stands at around 340,000.
“There are so many more [Muslims] than in other non-Swiss religions. This is part of the reason why the Swiss have a certain fear of Muslims: that too many could change the demographic balance,” said Donath, who also sits on the Council of Religions.
This is not the case with other non-native religions, he says, because their numbers are so small. At the last census there were 18,000 Jews, 21,000 Buddhists and 28,000 Hindus.
Maizar, though, believes the numbers game is a red herring. He argues that Switzerland welcomed refugees from the Balkans and now has a duty to look after them. He dismisses as “utter nonsense” claims that Muslims have failed to integrate.
“More than 50 per cent of Muslims here are under 25. These are the second generation and they differ completely from their parents in that they are assimilated,” said Maizar.
“All they want is to be accepted as human beings and to be integrated as Swiss citizens. But what we are seeing at the moment can only serve to alienate them.”