Law Review: Panacea or Pathetic Fallacy? The Swiss Ban on Minarets

Lorenz Langer, Panacea or Pathetic Fallacy? The Swiss Ban on Minarets (April 24, 2010). Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 43, 2010. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1594192

On November 29, 2009, Swiss voters adopted a ballot initiative introducing a constitutional ban on the construction of minarets. The supporters of the initiative had argued that minarets were not a religious symbol, but a token of power and conquest: banning them would halt the creeping Islamisation of Switzerland. The ban’s opponents had warned that the ballot initiative violated national and international provisions on non-discrimination and the free exercise of religion.

Mosques and minarets, however, also cause controversies elsewhere. The fears that fueled the prohibition of minarets in Switzerland are widespread in Europe. I set out how hostility to Islam is partly rooted in historical traditions, partly due to disagreement over how to integrate newcomers into Western society, and I suggest an approach that carefully balances expectations of Muslim adaption with a less exclusive construction of European identity.

This article provides a thick description of the context in which the minaret vote took place. First, a legal analysis addresses the implications of the ban under national, regional and international normative frameworks. It is argued that the ban is irreconcilable with the constitutional bill of rights and several international human right provisions. However, in contrast to state ballots in the United States, there is no judicial review of initiatives in Switzerland; respect for the vox populi trumps any concern over conflicting international obligations. A historical analysis will help to explain how, through its excessive emphasis on popular sovereignty, the peculiar myth-system underlying modern-time Switzerland has facilitated the banning of minarets.