Swiss Minaret Ban a Setback for MidEast Diplomacy

layalinaSwitzerland recently passed a controversial referendum to ban minarets in the country, provoking uproar, intense debate and even protest, reports the Agence France-Presse. The move is regarded by many as “deeply divisive,” says UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, as well as a major setback for American and European public diplomacy in the Arab world.

Sweden, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union, commented that the United Nations “should reconsider its presence in Geneva,” according to an Associated Press article published in Final Call.

“Even if this is Switzerland, it sends a very unfortunate signal to large parts of the rest of the world about attitudes and prejudices in Europe,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on his blog. He continued to observe that the ban is a “poor act of diplomacy” from the Swiss, whose neutrality on globally divisive issues is renowned.

Analysts and commentators are also pointing to the ban as a serious complication for dialogue with Muslims around the world, even among those who are non-practicing, because the minaret is largely seen as a symbol of Arab and Muslim identity.

“The banning of minarets sends a special message of rejection to the tens of millions of European Muslims,” writes Ghassan Rubeiz at Global Arab Network.

“The West invests heavily in public diplomacy to create a culture of exchange and understanding with Arabs and Muslims. Banning minarets in the heart of Europe undermines the strategic Western interests in the Muslim world,” Reubeiz finishes.

“Most Muslims accept the minaret as an architectural conduit for the call to prayer, but most do not seek political power, subscribe to the burqa, tolerate forced marriages, or accept genital mutilation of girls,” comments Ahmed Rehab at the Huffington Post. “How these three things are ‘comparable’ with a minaret must be Switzerland’s dirty little secret because I cannot figure it out,” he continues.

Prominent leaders of other religions have also conveyed heavy disapproval of the ban, reports the Christian Post. A top Lutheran reverend, along with the Swiss Council of Religions (a national body comprised of Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders) all released statements condemning the Swiss ban. Similarly, the Conference of European Rabbis declared the decision to be an “undemocratic” violation of religious freedoms, according to YNet News.

Many in the Arab press are highlighting the ban as an example of Western hypocrisy, especially because it comes from a country that takes pride in its religious and minority tolerance, says Swiss Info. The article cites the reaction of many Arab media outlets, ranging from boycotting Swiss products to criticizing Swiss Muslims for their alleged failure “to unite and speak under one banner.”

But French president Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to defend the Swiss ban in an opinion piece for Le Monde, reports the Telegraph. Sarkozy asserts that “instead of irrevocably condemning the Swiss,” the world should “try to understand what [the ban] sought to express.” Namely, that many Europeans feel their culture and society are at risk due to heavy immigration from the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe.

Sarkozy’s commentary fueled an already prevalent debate within France over the issue of its own Muslim population (which is the largest in Europe), and French national identity in general. Many on the political left in France have accused the president of posturing to ignite far-right voters in preparation of the upcoming regional elections, continues the Telegraph.

In contrast, the Swiss government has come out opposed to the ban, which was not as an act of legislation but rather a referendum adopted by voters. In fact, the current government and parliament had cautioned constituents prior to the vote that the referendum would violate the Swiss constitution and “cherished tradition of tolerance,” reports the Washington Post. A reversal vote is already being considered by the Swiss left, and multiple legal disputes have been filed questioning the constitutionality of the ban.

Another indication of the polarizing nature of the ban is the action of one Swiss businessman, who has built a makeshift minaret on top of his chimney in protest, reports Agence-France Presse. The man, Guillaume Morand, said the ban is especially “scandalous” because Switzerland “actively encourages Arabs to visit the country and spend their money here,” the article continues.

Some have also expressed concern that the ban could trigger anti-Western aggression from extremists, or at least give justification to their messages.

“Provocation … risks inflaming extremism,” Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said, according to Final Call.
She also emphasized that the country will not change its foreign policy in light of the ban, but “continue to maintain close relations with Muslim nations.”