Federal Council press conference on the popular vote of 29 November 2009

Popular initiative against the construction of minarets

Keywords: Religion

Speeches, FDJP, 29.11.2009. The spoken word is imperative

Bern. Statement by Federal Councillor Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, 29 November 2009, Federal Palace Media Centre

Ladies and gentlemen,

The people and the cantons have adopted the federal popular initiative against the construction of minarets. The Federal Council and the majority of parliament rejected the initiative and recommended the electorate to vote ‘no’. The Swiss people today decided otherwise. The Federal Council naturally respects this democratic decision.

The text which has now been incorporated into the Federal Constitution as Article 72, paragraph 3, prohibits the construction of new minarets in Switzerland. The four existing minarets in Zurich, Geneva, Winterthur and Wangen bei Olten are not affected by this decision. The new construction ban is directly applicable and requires no further clarification. It only applies to minarets; mosques and Muslim places of worship can still be constructed under the applicable spatial planning, building and emissions regulations.

Muslims in Switzerland are free to practise their beliefs just as before. The decision is only directed against the construction of new minarets. It is not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture. That has also always been stated by the authors of the initiative.

The fundamental freedom of religion and conscience which is guaranteed under Article 15 of the Federal Constitution applies to all religions. The ban on the construction of new minarets does have the effect of restricting the freedom to display the Muslim faith to the outside world by erecting a minaret. However, the freedom to profess one’s faith in Islam and to practise the religion alone or in community with others is not affected by the construction ban in any way.

The outcome of today’s popular vote is undeniably a reflection of the fears and uncertainties that exist among the population; concerns that Islamic-fundamentalist ideas could lead to the establishment of parallel societies, which cut themselves off from the rest of society, which reject the traditions of our state and society, and which disregard our laws. These concerns must be taken seriously. The Federal Council has always done so and will continue to do so. The Federal Council and the majority of parliament held the view, however, that a ban on the construction of minarets was not a suitable means of countering extremist tendencies.

National law applies universally in Switzerland. It cannot be flouted by citing religious codes. Anyone who abides by our legal and social order must though be able to rely on the fact that they will be protected by it in just the same way as all other inhabitants of our country.

We must not overlook the fact that the vast majority of Muslims in Switzerland fully accepts our legal system. The popular decision against the construction of minarets must not be allowed to lead to mutual distrust. Marginalisation and exclusion on the basis of religious and cultural differences would be devastating for an open country such as Switzerland, which is dependent on effective foreign relations, and which is also home to a diverse range of minorities within its small territory.

Freedom of religion was and is a key element of Switzerland’s successful approach. Ensuring this is a dynamic and demanding process which constantly requires fresh efforts on the part of the State as well as on the part of various religious communities and individual citizens.

So what are the consequences of today’s vote? For the Federal Council there are two main aspects: the implementation of the popular decision and the continuation of open and constructive dialogue between religious and social groups and the authorities.

As far as implementation is concerned, the decision of the people and the cantons for a constitutionally enshrined ban on the construction of new minarets has to be respected. However, in its dispatch on the initiative the Federal Council concluded that a construction ban contradicted the freedom of religion and the ban on discrimination as guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR II). These guarantees are binding on Switzerland under international law.

The question of how the European Court of Human Rights would decide in the event of a possible appeal against this ban on the construction of minarets, and what the consequences of such a decision would be, will have to be answered when the time comes.

Discussions in advance of the vote showed that the debate on expressions of religious belief in the context of freedom of religion, state regulations and social expectations were already of great importance. The dialogue between religious and social groups and the authorities, which has long been fostered, must be continued with fresh resolve. Indispensible prerequisites for this are respect and openness towards those who hold differing views.

The outcome of today’s vote reflects the concern among the population that our national and social order could be eroded by yielding to fundamentalist Islamic tendencies. Conversely, there are concerns among well-integrated Muslims in our country that they could be segregated from society and debased. The popular initiative gave vent to the fears felt by both sides.

In the recent past, Switzerland has been rather successful in defusing religiously motivated tensions and in finding pragmatic solutions to specific problems. If we continue to do so by applying a sense of proportion and foresight, and by not labelling people with different religious or ideological backgrounds as threatening, but potentially enriching, we will be able to maintain religious peace in future. The Federal Council will make every effort to achieve this.

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