Law, Populist Politics and the Ban on Minarets in Switzerland

Lukuaika: 4 min.

Author: Martin Baumann

The law and the courts have increasingly become the final recourse and agent for settling political and social issues in a pluralistic society. The Swiss ban on minarets is a recent, widely discussed case at hand, shifting political negotiations about the place of immigrants, religious diversity, and range of freedom to the area of legal paragraphs and regulations. What follows is a brief description and analysis of the case.

In late November 2009, a majority of Swiss citizens voted for a ban on building minarets in Switzerland. The prohibition went into force immediately, and federal law added the sentence “The building of minarets is forbidden in Switzerland” (§ 72,3). The amount of support for the populist campaign came as a surprise to all – liberal and left-wing parties as well as Muslims had hoped for a clear “No”; conservative voters and right-wing parties did not expect the ban to pass the plebiscite. However, on November 29th, a majority of 57.5 percent of voters voted in favour of the referendum initiated by spokespersons of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and the evangelically oriented Federal Democratic Union (EDU). The plebiscite, based on grassroots democratic procedures emblematic of Switzerland, created headline news world-wide, and right-wing spokespersons all over Europe enthusiastically applauded the vote and encouraged similar campaigns in their own countries.

The voting result was, however, preceded by some history, and can be judged as an emotion-laden culmination of debates about “foreigners” (Ausländer) and Muslim people in particular in Switzerland. The populist SVP has developed into an increasingly strong party since the late 1990s. Championing conservative and nationalistic values, praising the autonomy of Switzerland and its attributed values and heritage, as well as engaging in polemic, anti-foreigner politics, the party met the feelings and hidden attitudes of many Swiss people.

The November 2009 plebiscite based its argumentation on the negative image of “Islam” spread in the media since 9/11 and other terrorist attacks. Further issues, such as attributed Islamic suppression of women, genital mutilation, forced marriage, and compulsory wearing of the scarf for Muslim women poured further fuel into the political fire. Right-wing politicians painted a picture of oppressive, aggressive and intolerant Islam in Switzerland, embarking on a sinister infiltration of homogeneous and harmonious Swiss society. The stereotype did not match the actual Muslims living in Switzerland, currently about 400,000 (5.3 percent of the Swiss population), who originate in the former Yugoslavia (56 percent), Turkey (20 percent) and the African continent (19 percent).

Spokespersons targeted plans by local Muslim societies to build new minarets as a symbol and emblem of the “onward march of Islam” in Switzerland. Hardliners declared that the minaret was not a religious symbol, but rather a political sign representative of growing power in a particular territory. They demanded that the “political symbol” of the minaret no longer be built in Switzerland, as it would provide evidence of the threat of the ‘schleichende Unterwanderung durch den Islam’ (creeping infiltration by Islam). Quite obviously a minaret was nothing ‘Schweizerisches’ (Swiss) and was in visual non-conformity with Swiss towns.

Right-wing hardliners of the SVP initiated a referendum to inscribe the ban on minarets into the federal constitution. They gathered 113,000 signatures from Swiss citizens, requiring the government and parliament to set up the plebiscite. The campaign turned out to be very emotional, polemic and controversial, similar to previous electoral controversies. Left-wing parties, the main churches, and liberal voices strongly rejected the campaign. They accused the SVP of violating religious freedom and damaging the image of Switzerland as a politically neutral, free and tolerant nation state. The SVP and the Evangelical People’s Party argued that they were the only remaining custodians of Swiss culture and heritage, engaged in saving the “occidental Christian heritage” and the rights of Swiss people in their own land.

Reasons for the strong majority in support of the ban on building minarets are varied. Many conservative Swiss felt threatened by foreigners, particularly in the midst of economic insecurity. Wide-spread uncertainty and the anxiety about a perceived threat to Swiss values combined with underlying reservations towards outsiders (turning into xenophobia at times). In particular, people in rural regions, the elderly, and those with strongly Christian values and less education supported the referendum: they wanted to send a strong signal that there were limits to Swiss tolerance; many felt that that tolerance was already being stretched too far. Voting against minarets functioned as a conduit for voicing those frustrations and anxieties. On the other hand, moderate, liberal and left-wing parties had been too certain that the initiative would be defeated. They did not oppose the highly polemic campaign strongly enough. Also, Muslim groups and organisations turned out to be strikingly passive; in the lead-up to the vote, they had decided to not engage in the campaign and to keep a low profile. Now, after the legal ban and the exclusionary symbol have succeeded, Muslim organisations will have to rethink their strategy and reflect on more active engagement in Swiss society.

The debate continues, not in civil society or the political arena, but in the law. The case will most likely be taken to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. All expect a condemnation of Switzerland, as the ban constitutes a violation of the human rights treaty signed by the Swiss state. The SVP has already declared that ‘Landesrecht’ (law of the nation) takes precedence over ‘Völkerrecht’ (law of all nations) and that, as an exceptional case, Switzerland should be protected against all ‘foreign laws and determinations’. Again, lawyers and the law will make the final determination. In general, there is a common trend of shifting political negotiations of controversial social and political issues towards the arena of law and the courts. Actors in civil society, politicians, and political interest groups are disempowering themselves and increasingly politicising the function and decisions made by judges and courts.


Baumann, Martin/ Stolz, Jörg (eds.) (2007) Eine Schweiz – viele Religionen: Risiken und Chancen des Zusammenlebens. Bielefeld: transcript (also on French edition).

Behloul, Samuel M. (2007) From ´problematic´ Foreigners to ´unproblematic´ Muslims: Bosniaks in the Swiss Islam-Discourse. The Refugee Survey Quarterly 26(2), 22-36.

Mayer, Jean-François (2009) Analysis: a majority of Swiss voters decide to ban the building of new minarets. Religioscope Institute Fribourg, 1 Dec. 2009.

Tanner, Mathias; Müller, Felix; Mathwig, Frank & Lienemann, Wolfgang (Hg.) (2009) Streit um das Minarett: Zusammenleben in der religiös pluralistischen Gesellschaft. Zürich: TVZ.

Websites. (website of hardliners of SVP to ban minarets in Switzerland) (documentary of all publically visible religious buildings in Switzerland, set by the Dept. for the Study of Religions, University of Lucerne)