What Does the Vote Against Minarets Mean?

What Does the Vote Against Minarets Mean?

In part 1 of this series, Mr. Mayer (on behalf of Religioscope) explains what a popular initiative is and makes some initial observations on the acceptance of the ban on minarets.

On Sunday, November 29, 2009, with a participation rate of 53.4 percent, 57.5 percent of Swiss voters voted to ban the building of new minarets in the country. Here, Religioscope gives an analysis of this unexpected result and attempts to put it in perspective.

The results of Sunday’s vote were unexpected for most observers, including the editors of the Religion.info website  Recent surveys forecast that the popular initiative for the ban on building new minarets in Switzerland would be rejected by 53 percent of the voters (with less than 40 percent supporting it and the rest remaining undecided). It is true that a growing support for a "yes" vote had been observed during the last weeks of the campaign, but it was not of such a magnitude: Nobody — even the initiative’s supporters — had counted on such massive support for the ban on minarets.

Usually, Religioscope does not comment on hot news, preferring to keep some distance from the events of the day. However, because the institute is located in Switzerland and because it published in September a book titled Les minarets de la discorde. ?clairages sur un débat suisse et européen on the minaret controversy, it seems appropriate to give an analysis, primarily for the purpose of answering the questions of readers across the world. Issues raised by the vote indeed go beyond Swiss borders.

But let’s first explain what a "popular initiative" is, and how the initiative for banning minarets came into existence.

The Popular Initiative Against the Building of Minarets



In the Swiss system of semi-direct democracy, a popular initiative must be distinguished from a popular referendum. At the federal (national) level, a popular referendum can be held against a law or a treaty voted by the Federal Parliament. Within six months, at least 50,000 citizens must sign the referendum (the validity of the signatures is verified). Beside the popular referendum, there is also a compulsory referendum: When a change is made in the Federal Constitution, citizens are asked to vote for or against it.

A popular initiative is something different: A group that manages to gather at least 100,000 signatures of citizens within 18 months can force a national vote for introducing a change in the Federal Constitution, even without any support within the Federal Parliament. The government can decide to send the initiative to a national vote, either with or without a counterproposal. For a popular initiative to be accepted, it is not enough that it gathers the majority of individual votes. Because Switzerland is a federal system, a referendum must also win the majority of the cantons; that is, the units of the federal state (some of which are significantly more populous than others).

The popular initiative against the building of minarets was launched after local controversies arose around projects to add small, "symbolic" minarets to the top of a few Muslim places of Prayer (former commercial or industrial premises converted for religious purposes). The promoters of the initiative managed to gather 115,000 signatures, which were presented to the Federal Chancery in July 2008. The initiative, which has become a law in Switzerland after the November 29 vote, adds a paragraph (Paragraph 3) to Article 72 of the Federal Constitution stating that the "building of minarets is forbidden."



The initiative was primarily supported by members of the Swiss People’s Party (Schweizerische Volkspartei in German; Union Démocratique du Centre in French), a rightist political party that currently forms the largest parliamentary group in the Swiss Federal Parliament. It was also supported by members of the Federal Democratic Union (Eidgen?ssisch-Demokratische Union in German; Union Démocratique Fédérale in French), a small but quite active evangelical and conservative political party.
Both the government and the majority of the Federal Parliament had asked the voters to reject the popular initiative. Similarly, the Roman Catholic Church and the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches had strongly recommended rejection of the initiative. Even the main evangelical organizations had adopted the same stance, and most of the media were clearly against the initiative. 

Nevertheless, the initiative was eventually supported by the majority of the voters (with a participation rate of more than 50 percent, being considered quite good by Swiss standards). It was not the first time that the majority of Swiss people had gone against the recommendations of most political and religious organizations; however, the case of the vote on minarets is striking because of the very clear result regarding a potentially very sensitive topic; the victory was not won with a tight margin.

Initial Observations After the Acceptance of the Initiative

Practically, what does this vote mean now? There are currently four minarets in Switzerland, and nothing will change for these, as only the building of new minarets has become forbidden. It is also important to state that there will be no restriction on building mosques or other Muslim gathering places; the law applies to minarets and only to them. In the same way, there will be no restrictions on Muslim worship as it has been conducted up until now.



Within hours of the successful outcome of the initiative, one question was raised  about the likelihood of a case being brought to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. For instance, a Muslim group denied the right to build a minaret in a town where one has been planned (e.g., in Langenthal) could have recourse to the ECHR. It is quite possible that this will take place sooner or later (though such a process may take several years to be complete). There would definitely be arguments condemning Switzerland, but, at this stage, it is impossible to know with certainty what the final decision would be, in light of past decisions of the ECHR on a variety of issues with a religious component.

Behind the rejection of minarets, there are larger issues (e.g., questions and fears about Islam itself or about the presence of Muslims in the country). The minaret has become a symbol around which all these issues have crystallized out. In the eyes of the sponsors of the initiative against minarets, these "Islamic towers" are the expression of a movement toward political domination.

Proponents of the initiative have always been keen to emphasize that they were not acting against religious freedom, as mosques can exist perfectly well without minarets, and in any case the minarets in Switzerland are not supposed to be used for calling people to Prayer. Far from being limited to the issue of the minaret itself, the campaign debates dealt with Islam in general. The supporters of the ban have made the minaret into a symbol of what they see as the Islamization of Switzerland and Europe.

As mentioned earlier, a major surprise has been the huge discrepancy between the results of the vote and the forecasts made by political surveys prior to the referendum. This seriously puts to question the reliability of such surveys when they deal with issues where the voters perceive a wide gap between their own views and those of the majority of dominant elites and the media, and this gap possibly makes them reluctant to express their opinions openly.
A few hours before the results of the vote were announced, at a time when it was still unexpected that the initiative would win, a representative of the Swiss People’s Party in the Federal Parliament, Oskar Freysinger, was telling a television crew that a "yes" vote for the initiative would be the equivalent of a denial of the whole Swiss establishment (political parties, major churches, media, etc.). There is no doubt that he was making a valid point. This raises quite serious issues regarding the gap between the establishment and the average Swiss citizen, especially that even government agencies had not been able to predict the outcome.