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Analysis II
Last Updated: 10/06/2008
Switzerland's "Minaret Conflict"
Lucy Dubochet

I. Description

In 2006 and 2007 a few Muslim communities had requested building permits to add a minaret to their mosques. In many cases, although local administrations had considered that there was no legal basis to reject these demands, strong public opposition led to the permits being cancelled.

At the beginning of the year 2008, the problem acquired a national dimension. Politicians of the nationalist-populist party (Union Démocratique du Centre) presented a popular initiative on the subject. The mechanism of popular initiative is one specific to Switzerland’s political system: the country being a direct democracy, any topic can be brought up for voting, provided that the support committee has gathered enough citizen’s signatures and that the initiative does not violate a few central international laws.

The aim of the initiative is to outlaw the building of minarets in Switzerland. Notably, the initiator committee presents the minaret as a “symbol for the claim of political-religious power” that challenges the “legal and social regime defined by the Constitution” and an attempt to “impose a system based on the Sharia” (CICCM, 2008: § 2).

The parliament, which judges whether the law is acceptable in terms of international rights, noted that the initiative infringes the “freedom of religion” and the interdiction of discrimination of the European Convention of Human Rights (articles 9 and 14), and of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (articles 2 and 18). However, an initiative can only be rejected if it violates the core human rights recognized by all countries, thus the initiative was considered as acceptable and citizens will have to vote on it (FCS: 9).

The government immediately stated its opposition to the law. It noted that it could threaten Switzerland’s peace and security at both the national and international level (FCS: 45-46). It also created a specific crisis group, and Swiss diplomats in the Islamic world were instructed to inform governments and medias about the law so as to reduce its explosive potential.

Until now the Islamic community of Switzerland reacted very moderately. It has asked for explanations and warned against the negative effects this discriminating law could have in the country and abroad. However, the law has attracted the attention of Muslim communities abroad: the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has expressed its concern and asked for an enquiry.

II. Threats to peace

A. Against Integration

We will now focus on the threats at the level of internal politics. I will argue that the initiative is likely to create the “vicious circle of actions and reactions” described by the “conflict-spiral model” (Pruitt & Kim, 2004: 96). Political use of xenophobic symbols, relayed by the media, is likely to create a sentiment of exclusion amongst Muslims, which could lead to a rise in antisocial behaviours amongst the discriminated population. In response to these behaviours, stigmatisation could further increase.

i. Stigmatization

Most of Switzerland’s 350,000 Muslims are immigrants who fled the Balkan-wars. In the last ten years, this population been increasingly been denounced as a source of criminality and violence. It is also often portrayed as unfairly competing with Swiss nationals for employment, or for social benefits. In recent years, a string of initiatives, aimed at limiting the number of immigrants, were put to vote. The votes’ campaigns have seen virulent anti-Muslim news and analyses in the media. The restrictive nature of Switzerland’s immigration law and the atmosphere of xenophobia that surrounds it are unusual to the point that they constitute the central element of the report on the Universal Periodical Review for the UN Council of Human Right’s (OHCHR, 2008: 59).

These initiatives coincide with a temporary economic weakness. From 2000 to 2003, the unemployment rate went from 2% to 4% (Flückiger, Kempeneers, Deutsch, Silber, Bazen, 2006: 4), and the population grew increasingly fearful of economic hardship. Islamophobia appears to be related to fears of losing economic advantages. Populist politicians have played the image of a “dangerous immigrant” to canalise these fears, and increase their popularity. By doing so, they have introduced “hostile attitudes and perceptions” that the structural change model relates to the escalation of a conflict in the political debate (Pruitt & Kim, 2004: 105).

These emotions and attitudes show through a rhetoric based on many of the behavioural patterns that psychological approach of conflicts have related to escalation. Hence, the initiator’s rhetoric states that minarets are a symbol of “lurking Islamism” (CICCM, 2008). Such a shift from specific to general is common in situations of escalation (Pruitt & Kim, 2004: 89). Pruitt and Kim describe, in their analysis of escalation, how “small, concrete concerns tend to be supplanted by grandiose and all-encompassing positions and by a general intolerance of the other side” (Pruitt & Kim, 2004: 89). This position can be traced back to Huntington’s notion of a “choc of civilizations”. The authority of this theoretical reference enables an apparent “rationalization” of the “hostile” attitude adopted by the initiators, strengthening the polarization (Pruitt & Kim, 2004: 112).

Polarisation is then further dramatised by referring to the “enemy imagery” (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, Miall, 2005: 45) used by certain radical groups in Islam. An example of this is an advert used by the initiators that pictures Switzerland being ripped apart by a rocket-like minaret (CICCM, 2008). Islamic terror is usually not linked to Albanese populations fleeing the Balkan war. The connection that the initiators outline helps creating a dehumanized image of Muslims.

In all these moves, the “processes of selective perception through forms of tunnel vision, prejudice and stereotyping” (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, Miall, 2005, 45) that Burton targets in his conflict resolution approach can be recognised.

Negative attitudes may even increase if the initiative becomes law, as hiding visible signs of Islam may strengthen the population’s ignorance of that religion. This could be a source of further fear and stereotypes that the C.R. SIPABIO model shows to be source of conflict (Abdalla et all, 2002: 48).

ii. Reaction of the Muslim Community

The stigmatization analysed above is part of a tendency to stop Muslim communities from participating in Switzerland’s political and public life. Hisham Maizar, the President of Switzerland’s Federation of Islamic Organisation, noted that requesting the construction of a minaret is a consequence of a better integration (Widmer, 2007: § 4), as this procedure requires knowledge of the national languages and of the law.

Recognising the importance of the “struggle for such basic needs as identity, recognition” (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, Miall, 2005: 45), “acceptance, fair access to political institutions and economic participation” (Azar, 1990: 93) in the emergence of a conflict helps predicting whether this marginalisation may create a “niche for a […] social conflict” (Azar, 1990: 9).

The law implies a rejection of the Muslim religion and culture — both part of the community’s identity. This could lead moderate Muslims towards a radical form of Islam. More generally, if Muslims feel that the State and its laws do not take into account their basic needs, they may no longer feel bound by them, and may adopt behaviours that threaten security.

The restrictive naturalisation laws of Switzerland make it difficult for foreigners to get the political rights linked with citizenship, worsening the Muslim community’s sense of alienation. Moreover, immigrants experience discrimination in everyday life and when looking for work (on this topic see OHCHR, 2008: 5). It seems likely that the lack of perspectives is one of the factors that turns some members of this community towards criminality: police figures show that gangs originating from the Balkans are amongst those who dominate the drugs, arms and humans traffic (FDJP, 2007: 22 ).

Until now, the answer of the leaders of the Islamic community was very moderate, but it is likely that the introduction of the law will harden the community’s stance. The transformations that are likely to occur may be postulated by the analysis of the group dynamics described by the structural change model. The Muslim community is likely to respond to the law by a similar move of rejection, increasing the “polarization” of the two parties (Pruitt & Kim, 2004: 116). A rising recognition of radical leaders may be another response (Pruitt & Kim, 2004: 117).

Finally, as stated in a governmental report, the discriminating nature of the law could antagonise religious groups (CFS: 45). The sense of injustice that the Muslim community may develop for being the sole target of the interdiction could create resentment and lead to violent behaviours against other religious groups.

All in all, it seems unlikely that these phenomena by themselves will become serious threats on a national level. They may however create links between individuals in Switzerland’s Muslim community and international radical groups, which may in turn threaten Switzerland.

B. The international threat

The proposed law also generated concern and resentment in the world’s Muslim communities. The OIC, for example, has linked the law to the Danish Caricatures that had induced a vague of violence throughout Islamic countries  (Grafenried, 2008: 2).

Moreover, the law appears as an illustration of “the oppressive weight of non-Muslim […] power” that violent, radical groups of Islam have been fighting against (ICG, 2005: § 6), and which could take it as a provocation. Although the government’s crisis group describes this threat as difficult to estimate (FCS, 46), the “caricature crisis” in Denmark should probably teach prudence. Six months had passed since the publication of the caricatures when violent protests broke out throughout the world.

The government has taken measures to avert “miscommunication” which is seen as a possible “source” of escalation (Abdalla et al, 2002: 48). Diplomats have been in regular contact with politicians and the media. However, the start of the actual campaign preceding the vote will see an increasing use of symbols, religious polarization and stigmatization. Curiosity on the part of the international media will rise and the likelihood of a violent response will increase.

III. Conclusion

This crisis has had the positive effect of putting in focus problems that had been ignored in the past. The response of the international Muslim community also demonstrates the impossibility to act on a national level without taking into account the consequences at an international level.

Moreover, it puts into light the existence of an organised Muslim community in Switzerland. By doing so, it upsets the image of a homogeneous national community, and demonstrates the incapacity of Swiss political institutions to integrate communities that have not been historically part of it. It seems that migrations have created a situation similar to that described by Azar in post-colonial regions: the state machinery comes to be “dominated by a single communal group that […] is unresponsive to the needs of other groups in the society” (Azar, 1990: 31). As migrations are likely to increase in the future, institutions must be adapted.

In practical terms and to prevent a similar crisis, the legal requirements for accepting initiatives ought to be changed, and should include principles like the freedom of religion and the interdiction of discrimination.

To reduce marginalizing amongst Muslims or communities not historically part of Switzerland, non-citizens ought to have a voice in the political debate. A radical way of achieving this would be to extend voting rights to non-citizens living in Switzerland. However, the current trend of hardening immigration laws is unlikely to allow for such measures. It would therefore be more realistic to give solid consultative powers to organisations representing the interest of these minorities.

Switzerland’s conception of identity ought to be reviewed. Education should adopt a multi-cultural, and multi-religious approach so as to reflect the real nature of the population. 

To reduce miscomprehension and related fears in the population, the government should organise for its own population what it has done in Islamic countries: it should inform the media and inform citizens on the nature of the Muslim community. More broadly, the government should launch a campaign of information on issues linked to immigration, its impact on the economy and the real consequences on national identity. This is likely to reduce stigmatization, and to curb the polarizing rhetoric that dominates the debate on this question. In short, work should be done to help citizens “break out of the defensive shells into which they [have] retreated, […] out of fear of what [i]s happening in the public world” (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, Miall, 2005: 53).


[Abdalla et al, 2002] Abdalla Amr, et al. 2002. “Understanding C.R. SIPABIO: A Conflict Analysis Model”, in Say Peace: Conflict Resolution Training Manual for Muslim Communities. Virginia, USA: The Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences.

[Azar, 1990] AZAR Edwards E. 1990. The Management of Protracted Social Conflict. Theory and Cases, Aldershot: Dartmouth.

[CICCM, 2008] Comité d’initiative contre la construction de minarets. 2008. “De quoi s’agit-il?”, (

[FCS] Federal Council of Switzerland, Message relatif à l’initiative “contre la construction des minarets en Suisse”.

[FDJP, 2007] Federal Department of Justice and Police. 2007. Rapport sur la sécurité intérieure de la Suisse, pp. 22-23 (

[Flückiger, Kempeneers, Deutsch, Silber, Bazen, 2006] Flückiger Yves, Kempeneers Pierre, Deutsch Joseph, Silber Jaques, Bazen Stephen. 2006. Analyse des differences régionales de chômage, Publication du Secrétariat de l’état à l’économie.

[Grafenried, 2008] GRAFENRIED Isabelle. 2008. “Suisse : Le Conseil fédéral prépare sa contre-offensive à l'initiative anti-minarets”, in Le Temps. 2 July.

[ICG, 2005] International Crisis Group. 2005. “Understanding Islam”. 2 March.

(Pruitt & Kim, 2004) Pruitt Dean & Kim Sung Hee. 2004. Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate and Settelment. Boston: McGraw-Hill 3td Edition.

(Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, Miall, 2005) Ramsbotham Oliver, Woodhouse Tom, Miall Hugh. 2005. Contempary Conflict Resolution; Second Edition; Cambridge, UK.

[OHCHR, 2008] Office of the High Commissionner of the Human Rights. 2008. Universal Periodical Review : Switzerland (

(Widmer) WIDMER Thomas, « Eine Art Siegesaüle », in Die Weltwoche, n°. 19/7.

Lucy Dubochet is a Master's degree candidate at the University for Peace.