Anger Over Anti-Islamic Poster: Why the Swiss Are Afraid of Minarets

By Michael Soukup

A poster featuring a Muslim woman in a chador surrounded by minaret towers that resemble missiles is causing outrage in Switzerland ahead of a referendum next month on whether to ban mosques from having minarets. The campaign is proving so controversial that even some die-hard members of the country's far right are uncomfortable with it.

A number of these posters have sprung up across Switzerland to encourage people to vote in favor of a ban on the construction of minarets in a November referendum. Zoom
DPA

A number of these posters have sprung up across Switzerland to encourage people to vote in favor of a ban on the construction of minarets in a November referendum.

Wangen bei Olten has already been lost. The small Swiss municipality at the foot of the Jura Mountains has become home to a minaret.

The Christians in the village fought hard to prevent it -- they collected signatures, lodged official complaints, spoke publicly against it and even the local Catholic and evangelical communities registered their opposition.

But nothing worked. Switzerland's highest court approved the building plans of the local Turkish cultural association and now a six meter (20 foot) tall minaret provides graphic proof of the victory won by the Olten Türk Kültür Ocagi.

"The minaret is only the first step," Daniel Zingg warns in appearances across the country. The former television repairman is a member of the Federal Democratic Union (EDU), a Christian party on the far right of Switzerland's political spectrum. Zingg, 53, sees minarets as symbols of Muslim victories over newly conquered lands -- as precursors to the introduction of Islamic Shariah law.

How times have changed in Switzerland. In the 1960s and 70s, politicians in Zürich and Geneva welcomed the construction of two mosques as symbols of the country's sophistication and open-mindedness. Nowadays, Switzerland's anti-minaret activists like to quote Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "Minarets are our bayonets," he said. "The domes are our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the believers our army."

Daniel Zingg, on the other hand, has been referred to by the Swiss daily Tagesanzeiger as "God's soldier against Islamization." So far, his biggest success has been in Langenthal, not far from Wangen bei Olten. There, he was able to prevent a minaret from being built, arguing that it would be a source of "ideological emissions."

But he soon may win a much larger victory. On November 29, Swiss citizens will vote on a referendum as to whether the construction of minarets in the country should be forbidden. Such a ban would not be a global premiere; similar laws exist in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan -- against the building of church towers.

The minaret initiative is so radical for a Western country that even some die-hard members of the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) are uncomfortable about it. The former party president and current defense minister Ueli Maurer said he was "not totally happy" about it. It probably breaches the consitutional right to religious freedom and could do further damage to Switzerland's international reputation which has already suffered in recent months from the UBS debacle in the US and accusations that Switzerland is a haven for tax evaders. The case could even provoke the same kind of violent reaction in Muslim countries as the publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in Danish newspapers did four years ago.

Outrage Across the Country

As if the referendum in itself weren't controversial enough, the SVP has launched its campaign with a bang. Its anti-minaret poster shows a grim-looking woman with most of her face covered by a black chador, surrounded by minarets that jut out of the Swiss national flag like missiles. The reaction was predictable. Before even a single placard had been put up, a wave of outrage swept the nation. The Swiss Commission Against Racism fiercely condemned the poster, saying: "It amounts to a defamation of the peaceful Swiss population and endangers public peace in Switzerland." On Tuesday, the United Nations Human Rights Committee queried Switzerland about the "very cynical political posters."

It was followed by debates about a banning the poster -- instant fodder for the media. Basel became the first city to ban the poster from being put up in public, thus putting pressure on other cities to follow suit. Each time a city spoke either in favor of or against a ban, the online portals were quick to report the news -- and of course they were just as quick to accompany it with an image of the poster. So far, the cities of Basel, Freiburg, Lausanne, Morges, Neuenburg, Nyon and Yverdon have banned it. But it has been permitted in Biel, Chur, Geneva, Lucerne, Olten, St. Gallen, Winterthur and Zürich.

As recently as August, the initiative committee was still complaining that only a few thousand Swiss francs had been made available, despite the fact that an comprehensive referendum campaign would cost around a half-million francs. The Blick am Abend free newspaper estimated that the advertising effect of all the negative publicity was worth a half-million francs. Minarets have topped the news agenda for weeks.

German Man Behind Successful Campaign

"When politicians get worked up into a frenzy, Alexander Segert can just lean back," wrote the Sunday edition of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Indeed, it is a German man who is behind the successful anti-minaret campaign. The 46-year-old from Hamburg moved to Switzerland after completing his university studies. He worked as a journalist for the conservative Schweizerzeit newspaper and later for the anti-Islam newspaper Bürger und Christ, or "Citizens and Christ," in which he wrote tirades against a liberal society. "I've been able to be active with the SVP on referendum and election campaigns for years," Segert told SPIEGEL ONLINE. His work includes an infamous rat poster that shows Social Democrats as greedy rats chewing away at the country. Another made headlines in 2007 by depicting three sheep on a Swiss flag kicking away a single black sheep with the words "create safety." Segert told the NZZ am Sonntag that he would also be willing to conceive a campaign with the slogan "Germans get out!"

The catalyst for the popular initiative was, of all things, the mini-minarets in Wangen, which symbolize the growing self-confidence of Switzerland's Muslim community. The population of Muslims in the country has grown from 56,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 today, but up until now they have largely practiced their religion discretely in backyard mosques. The second and third generation of immigrants from Turkey, Bosnia or Albania are now firmly establishing themselves in Switzerland. This is causing increased tensions within large swaths of Swiss society. A recent survey in the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper found that 51 percent of voters opposed the anti-minaret initiative, with 35 percent supporting it. "Many undecided voters could switch to the 'yes' camp," the newspaper concluded.

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