Dec 01 2009

Grappling with Swiss politics (more on the minaret ban)

by at 11:37 pm

Since our last post, there have been protests all over Switzerland, yesterday and tonight, and I went to the one in Lausanne:

Lausanne march against the minaret ban

We marched from the Cathedral of Lausanne to the mosque of the Islamic Centre of Lausanne (which doesn’t have a minaret). Representatives of the Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim communities spoke.

Radio Suisse Romande has coverage (in French, but there’s good video of the protests in Geneva and Lausanne).

The answer to Margaret’s question of how progressive Switzerland is isn’t at all simple. Jackie addressed it some a few weeks ago. Regarding immigrants specifically, I just read an article about work by a professor at the University of Neuch√Ętel who uses the term “semi-openness” to characterize the last 60 years of immigration to Switzerland, which seems about right, and more generally there’s a contradictory nature to many parts of Swiss society: there’s a strong social safety net and welfare state, but taxes are very low compared to the rest of Europe. Switzerland hosts many international organizations, but didn’t join the UN until 2002. Parts of Switzerland are very urban and cosmopolitan—Geneva is 38% foreign—while other mountainous cantons are very rural and isolated. Regarding what it means to be progressive, the contentious issues are just different than in the US: gay rights and abortion and health-care aren’t really issues here, but milk subsidies for farmers are.

Blogging at, Renard Sexton has more thoughts along exactly these lines, with more specific insights into the minaret issue, and some nice graphs and statistics, too:

This is all to say that the politics of culture in a country that is multi-cultural/lingual, yet insular (that is, not prone to being pushed by international or regional friends or foes) and isolated are very complicated politics indeed. The vote against minarets was perhaps a symbol of a wider vote against the growing international engagement that has ocurred in the last 20 years (a period during which, remember, Swiss voters twice rejected EU overtures).

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6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Grappling with Swiss politics (more on the minaret ban)”

  1. Joelon 02 Dec 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Thanks for the link to 538. I was not surprised to learn that residents of regions unlikely to ever have a minaret were the strongest supporters of the ban.

  2. Alexon 02 Dec 2009 at 11:56 pm

    Jackie, what was the thrust of the discussion in your International Law class? From what I garnered from Wikipedia, the European Court of Human Right’s rulings are binding on the members of the European Council, but it’s not totally clear how that would work.

  3. Jackieon 03 Dec 2009 at 12:20 am

    Ok, so I am going to try to summarize our class discussion the best I can, having had almost one full semester of international law.

    First of all, it is hard to talk about the case hypothetically. It will have to be some people who try to build a minaret, get denied, and it moves up through the courts from there. So much may depend on the specifics of the case itself.

    What is clear, though, is that it is not at all obvious that this hypothetical case would obviously be considered illegal. Switzerland, along with many other countries, has not ratified the progressive anti-discrimination Protocol 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is the only article that would have almost certainly made the judgment come out as illegal. As it stands, a case might be argued under either article 9 or 14. With article 9, the clause on the right to freedom of religion, Switzerland might be able to argue that banning minarets was a legitimate and proportionate restriction on freedom of religion based on one of the categories in the legitimation clause 9(2). Under article 14, a standard anti-discrimination clause, it is not at all clear whether there was an existing right to build minarets in the first place that has since been removed. All of which is to say that depending on the case that arrives at the Court and the sitting judges, there could be a variety of outcomes.

    Now, even if the court did say that the ban on minarets was in violation of international law, that doesn’t change Swiss law. There is nothing in the Swiss constitution that says its constitution automatically changes if judges in Strasbourg deem it is in violation of international law. Switzerland would have to do something to try to comply with the court, like pay reparations to the victims, hold another referendum, or withdraw from the court, but the law would not just change *poof.* This type of discrepency is a common issue for all international law as it applies to democracies that force all laws to go through a domestic democratic process. States can ratify international law or be in violation of international law at the same time as the national legal system does not match up.

    So, in conclusion, the thrust of what I’m trying to say is that the European Court of Human Rights might judge in a number of directions which is impossible to predict without knowing the specific case that will come before the court and the types of arguments their defense and the prosecutors will use Even if the Court finds against the ban, while Switzerland can expect international censure and some reparations of sorts to have to be paid, Swiss law might just remain the same.

    On the other hand, if it seems Swiss democracy is out of control and that direct democracy here simply means tyranny of the majority (just today there are reports that there might be an initiative for Switzerland to pull out of the Schengen zone), there are SOME safeguards in the constitution. The Federal Assembly of Switzerland, according to Article 139(2) of the Swiss constitution, cannot let initiatives get to popular vote if they violate preemptory norms of international law (aka jus cogens)…so at least things like aggression, genocide, slavery, racial discrimination, crimes against humanity, and torture are out of the picture, even if religious discrimination is not.

  4. […] In case you missed it in comments, Jackie posted some insights on the ban from her international law class. […]

  5. Margareton 18 Dec 2009 at 9:12 am

    Glad to have discovered your blog! I too have been thinking about this minaret ban ever since I heard about it. I have to admit, it caught me by surprise. I guess I’m used to the debates in Germany, where far right parties and neonazis are often in the media, but never expected it from the Swiss. Although I’ve been appalled on multiple occasions by expressions of xenophobic thought in Germany (e.g. the “Republikaner” party poster with the slogans “We’ll keep the church in the village, and the mosque in Istanbul” or various racist graffiti), Germans are often so paranoid about being perceived as discriminatory that the main parties and most people distance themselves from this sort of thinking (whether or not they privately have anti-Muslim sentiments, which many people do, is another issue). To see this sort of blatant xenophobic thought erupt in such a public and official way in Switzerland is truly disheartening.

    p.s. I love the Daily Show interview. My favorite question was of course “Is this neutral anger or real anger?”

  6. carloson 22 Aug 2010 at 5:37 pm

    reading about the whole discussion over the Cordoba House, Obama flip-flopping, Democrats and Republicans vying to present their best anti-Muslim arguments, and the political discussion being hostage of the likes of Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich makes me wonder on the reaction of people in the Arab countries on American prejudice. I am a Latino now living in South America and the reaction is very negative. At least the Swiss allow mosques to be built while in the States they are using silly arguments to vent their intolerance.
    A friend of mine, a Muslim, told me, after 25 years living in the States that he’s thinking about lefting the country for good simply because he can’t stand it any longer all the chicanes, racism and comments from his neighbors, colleagues, media, authorities. Sad

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