This is one of those instances where I, as a European Muslim, think to myself, "Thank God my family and I live in North America." I can't imagine living in a society where an architectural component of a mosque is compared to a weapon. Yet the 311,000 Muslims in Switzerland (of whom 36,000 are Swiss citizens) have to contend with these and other issues on an ongoing basis.
In an interview given to Arnaud Bédat of the Lausanne L'Illustré, the Swiss Islamic scholar and activist Tariq Ramadan blamed "racism" for the initiative.
Here are some excerpts from the interview (in my translation):
AB: What would you like to say to the Swiss who are being called to the ballot boxes on 29 November to voice their opinion on the anti-minaret initiative?TR: I would like to tell them that they should not vote with their fears, but with their principles and their hopes, and that it is necessary to preserve the fundamental principles which comprise the Swiss tradition: freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. The UDC [the Democratic Union of the Centre, another name for the Swiss People's Party] is today instrumentalising fear, such as with the posters which transform minarets into missiles. These are old and well known methods, with a racism that is returning today with new targets.AB: But do you understand these fears?TR: Certainly. One must respect the fear of ordinary citizens, while one also must resist in civic fashion populist parties which are instrumentalising fear in order to win elections. The majority of our fellow Swiss citizens are not racists: they are afraid and they would like to understand. Swiss people of the Muslim faith have a real responsibility to communicate and explain.... At the same time, one must refuse to allow populism to install itself. The problem is that the UDC initiative is using the symbol of the minaret to target Islam as a religion. I have had debates with Mr. Freysinger. What does he say? That "Islam is not integratable into Swiss society." So he says to me, to me, and I am Swiss like him, that "You are not a good Swiss person, you cannot be one, since your quality of being a Muslim prevents you from being a good Swiss person." That is the foundation of the debate: the problem is Islam, not minarets.AB: But the minaret, you write so yourself, is not a pillar of Muslim faith.TR: Yes, but is that a reason to say "Since it is not an obligation, you don't need it"?... Does it have to be that the only good Swiss Muslim is an invisible Muslim? Is this the future of our pluralism and of our living together?AB: Numerous Islamic countries forbid other religions on their territory -- there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia, for example. Is it not ultimately logical that part of the West reject Islam on its territory?TR: This is the oft-repeated argument of reciprocity. It is untenable. Respect for the rights and dignity of people is not a question of trade. It falls to us, to us in Switzerland, to preserve our principles of respect, and to not allow ourselves to be colonised by the unacceptable practices of other societies. Let us say first of all that it is wrong to say that religious minorities are always discriminated against in Muslim-majority societies. There are synagogues, churches and temples [there]. However, one should not deny the fact that discrimination and the denial of rights do occur, as in Saudi Arabia. One cannot hold Swiss citizens and residents of Muslim faith responsible for the actions of certain dictatorial governments from which they have often, by the way, fled for political or economic reasons. What one can expect from them [Swiss Muslims], nevertheless, from a moral point of view, is a denunciation of discrimination and ill treatment. That is something I do not stop doing, which has closed the doors of several countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to me.AB: Do you dream, as you detractors claim, of a world that is entirely Muslim?TR: No. I was born, have lived and have studied in Switzerland; my whole philosophical education comes from that. I have always believed that those who do not share my beliefs allow me to be more myself. The absolute power or uniformisation of a religion on earth would mean corruption and death. The worst that could happen to Muslims is if the whole world became Muslim! That is not even what God's project is. There has to be diversity and difference. Because difference teaches us humility and respect.AB: When you hear Michel Houellebecq declare that "Islam is the most stupid religion in the world," how do you react?TR: I do not react to this type of provocation. Thinking that a religion can be the most stupid on earth is a little stupid, is it not?AB: Some rapid-fire questions, to be answered with a "yes" or a "no". Do you condemn all types of fanaticism?TR: Yes. All types of fanaticism and dogmatism, wherever they come from.AB: Do you condemn hostage taking, such as that of Shalit in Israel?TR: Yes. And that of thousands of Palestinians, too.AB: Can one recruit a child suicide bomber in the name of Islam?TR: No.AB: Do you condemn Iran, which is suspected of building a nuclear weapon?TR: Yes. I condemn all possession of nuclear weapons, without exception.AB: Do you recongnise the right of Israel to exist?TR: Yes.AB: Are you for or against civil partnerships?TR: I am for them. I have even gone further, in saying to Muslims that civil partnerships could be a contractual framework of interest to Muslim citizens.AB: Are you going to set out into politics one day, as some have been hinting?TR: An absolute "no". My feelings are left-leaning. If someone forced my hand, I can see myself in a pro-ecological party more than anything.AB: Have you at times been the target of extremists?TR: I have received threats. Nothing serious.AB: You must be one of the most listened-to people by all the secret services of the planet, right?TR: That does not matter to me much. I try to hold to a single line: my political engagement is clear.
Let's hope the initiative to ban minarets fails, along with every other attempt to deny Muslims their place in European society.