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Swiss vote to impose ban on construction of Minarets on Mosques

Minaret in Zurich

Minaret in Zurich

This is truly disturbing. The New York Times is reporting:

In a vote that displayed a widespread anxiety about Islam and undermined the country’s reputation for religious tolerance, the Swiss on Sunday overwhelmingly imposed a national ban on the construction of minarets, the prayer towers of mosques, in a referendum drawn up by the far right and opposed by the government.

The referendum, which passed with a clear majority of 57.5 percent of the voters and in 22 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, was a victory for the right. The vote against was 42.5 percent. Because the ban gained a majority of votes and passed in a majority of the cantons, it will be added to the Constitution.

The Swiss Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the rightist Swiss People’s Party, or S.V.P., and a small religious party had proposed inserting a single sentence banning the construction of minarets, leading to the referendum.

The Swiss government said it would respect the vote and sought to reassure the Muslim population — mostly immigrants from other parts of Europe, like Kosovo and Turkey — that the minaret ban was “not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture.”

Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, the justice minister, said the result “reflects fears among the population of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies.”

While such concerns “have to be taken seriously,” she said in a statement, “The Federal Council takes the view that a ban on the construction of new minarets is not a feasible means of countering extremist tendencies.”

The government must now draft a supporting law on the ban, a process that could take at least a year and could put Switzerland in breach of international conventions on human rights.

For the record, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides:

Article 18

1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.

3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

Paragraph 3 is what is know as a “clawback clause.” Note how much discretion it seems to allow to the state to limit the exercise of the right. It is an unfortunate provision of the Convention, but one that the Swiss would likely use as a justification for the ban.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.