The year 2010 has started off as a difficult one for Muslim-European relations. Switzerland’s 29 November referendum banning the construction of minarets is still producing an outcry in the country and abroad. Critics point not only to the discriminatory character of the vote against Swiss Muslim minorities, but also the negative image it creates of Switzerland internationally.
In the aftermath of the vote, many of us are still trying to understand the different factors that led to it.
There is, of course, the ubiquitous argument concerning the would-be incompatibility of Islam with modern political and cultural reality, touted by political-ideological circles critical of Islam, such as the Movement against the Islamisation of Switzerland. There is also the anxiety of local populations in the face of immigration, the anger induced by the unequal treatment of women in certain regions of the Muslim world and, more broadly, the post-9/11 international political context.
However, practicing Muslims in Switzerland observe their religion in a manner consistent with the traditions and legal schools of their countries of origin, which actually include liberal and flexible approaches that can accommodate a "Europeanised" Islam and its practice within a secular state. As it happens, such Islamic schools of thought–including the Hanafi legal tradition–are well-disposed and tolerant in the Swiss and European context, but glaringly absent from the public debate on their own place in Swiss society.
At the very least, the minaret vote has led to important debates within Swiss society on integration, as well as finding harmony between Muslim identity and Swiss values, notably gender equality, as well as secular education and the public healthcare system.
This debate also contributes to creating in the public conscience a new category–"Muslim"–as one of the prime identities of persons and communities avowing the Muslim religion in Switzerland’s public record. The problem is that the general use of this term would lump together all Muslims of different socio-linguistic origins, moulding them gradually into an objective political and identifying category wrongly defining the sociological makeup of Swiss Muslims. Clearly, this could contribute to a politicisation of Islam in Switzerland.
This possible phenomenon plays right into the hands of some political-religious actors in Switzerland whose words are widely echoed by the Swiss media, creating further tensions.
For example, the president of the Muslim League of Canton Ticino, Gasmi Slaheddine, called for the foundation of an Islamic political party in Switzerland one week after the vote. Such individuals and groups are taking advantage of the window of opportunity to organise based on religion and cast themselves as legitimate representatives of all Muslims in Switzerland.
These self-appointed spokesmen of Swiss Muslims are in no way representative of the intrinsic diversity of this population. Their discourse contradicts the secular and religious representatives of a vast majority of Muslim citizens and communities in Switzerland and silences important voices from the debate about what it really means to be Muslim in Switzerland.
Secondly, the ongoing discussion reveals a profound misunderstanding of the sociological realities of Switzerland's Muslims. Despite the growing polemic, not much is known about these disparate populations, how they see cultural and political modernity, their true perception of Swiss society, their socio-professional life in Switzerland, and their degree of religiosity.
We are talking mainly about people and communities from the Balkans (Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Turkic countries (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan), who represent, importantly, the silent majority of Muslims in Switzerland, over 80 per cent of them. In addition, a very small minority define themselves as practicing Muslims–under 10 per cent, according to an ongoing survey by the University of Lausanne. This rate is very similar to people practicing other faiths in Switzerland.
In order to avoid the trap of the politicisation of Islam in Switzerland and having Muslim religious groups serve as inadequate representatives of the country's Muslims, we need to better understand this diverse population. We must allocate resources to creating bridges and facilitating communication and open mindedness so we can understand the opinions of this silent majority.
An ad hoc institutional framework should also be established to encourage the democratic participation of political and civil society representatives, both secular and religious, in the current debate. More specifically, the societal vision and values of the majority of Muslims in Switzerland should be conveyed clearly to the larger Swiss society. Such measures would clear the way for a genuinely constructive debate within the Muslim population of Switzerland and Swiss society as a whole.
* Bashkim Iseni is a political scientist at the University of Lausanne. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).