The infamous minaret ban in Switzerland, the result of a nationwide vote last autumn, continues to cause international confusion and indignation. Recently, Newsweek declared “The death of Switzerland”. The US magazine described growing xenophobia in the country as gradually “breaking down this once unique model nation”. The ban has angered some people such as the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi so much that, in February, he declared holy war on the country.
Luckily, the 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland – a substantial number considering the country only has 7.5 million citizens – have yet to pick up Gaddafi’s call to arms. On the contrary, the majority of Swiss Muslims are more intent than ever to fit in without giving up their beliefs. Eager to prove they deserve the same religious rights as Christians, a group of Swiss Muslims in a town called Wil are in the final stages of convincing the authorities to allow them to build a mosque that is visibly recognisable as a house of Islamic prayer.
Hisham Maizar is the driving force behind the project. The president of FIDS, the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland, is a truly assimilated Muslim. The 65-year-old emigrated from Jerusalem 40 years ago. He gained citizenship 10 years later, studied medicine and has been practising as a doctor in Wil (a small town with a population of 18,000 about half an hour’s train ride east from Zürich) ever since. He has no intention of ever living in Jerusalem again.
Maizar says in perfect German: “Of course many Muslims are sad about the ban. Some are angry. But the whole thing is really just a farce.” To date, there are hundreds of mosques dotted all over Switzerland. Most of them, however, are hidden away in backyards. Only four of them have a minaret and only two are really sizeable enough to be recognised as towers of prayer.
The situation in Wil is similar. For public prayer the 750 registered Muslims must cram into a small warehouse, which is huddled up to the railway tracks. This is their mosque. “It’s not worthy to be called a house of prayer,” says Maizar. But despite the minaret ban, the doctor is working on changing this.
Last year, he bought a 1,400 sq m plot of land on the outskirts of Wil. “We chose a spot outside the centre of town in the industrial area. Coming to Wil, it shouldn’t be the first thing people see – your average Wiler wouldn’t be happy with that. But when you do spot it, you should be able to recognise it as a mosque.”
Maizar believes western society in general, not just Swiss society specifically, is uneasy with people being openly religious. “In Islam there is no such thing as shades of belief. It’s simply a question of whether or not you’re a Muslim. And if you are, then prayer is a very important part of the day.”
Although the original building plans have been altered to accommodate the minaret ban, Maizar is trying to retain the building’s Middle Eastern appearance. Now the retired doctor is putting all his energy into collecting the €700,000 he needs in funding. He is just over half way. Proudly, he points out that it’s not just the Muslim community contributing. The Swiss have also donated money towards the project. By summer he wants to hand in the final documents for building permission.
Even Lukas Reimann, a local politician and member of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (Schweizerische Volkspartei, SVP), the party responsible for the anti-minaret vote, has come to terms with Maizar’s plans. “I’ll keep a close eye on what they are building,” he told the local newspaper, Thurgauer Zeitung, “but basically I have nothing against a new mosque in Wil.”
At least in this small Swiss town the unique model nation Newsweek magazine declared dead, is still what it used to be: a place where different cultures, religions and languages co-exist peacefully side-by-side.