Open society and Islam: a debate held in Zurich
Nicola Missaglia 1 December 2010

About a year ago Swiss citizens were called upon to vote in a referendum on a draft law establishing a “ban on building minarets in Switzerland.” Fifty-seven percent voted in favour and the law was approved, resulting in debates and controversies in the rest of Europe and around the world. On November 17th 2010, ResetDoc and the Swiss University organisation UFSP Asia and Europe organised a conference on this subject in Zurich, on the theme “Islam in Europe”, attended by intellectuals and scholars from all over the world asked to debate the many questions that remain open on this issue. Widely reported by the Swiss press, the event was held in the assembly hall at Zurich University, filled with students, professors and ordinary citizens, bearing witness to the fact that the need to address subjects such as pluralism, relations with Islam and European democracies, democratic dialectics between the majority and the minorities, tension between liberal principles and the traditional instruments of democratic deliberation, is a need that a rising number of people consider pressing. It is no coincidence that important newspapers such as the Neue Züricher Zeitung and the Winterthurer Löwe, which are more than reliable mirrors of the moods of the Swiss, seized the opportunity to further fuel the debate.

Those attending included former Italian Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Giuliano Amato, who in his paper emphasised how the Swiss referendum identified two very current contradictions in the manner in which western democracies manage the rights of their minorities. Is the claim to deliberate in on the rights of minorities using such as clearly majority system as a referendum really democratic? If democracies really wished to act in accordance with the liberal principles on which they are founded, said Amato, they should instead accept that integration is a “two way process”, in which the recognition of majorities and minorities is reciprocal. The use of the referendum to deliberate the rights of the 310,000 Muslims currently living in Switzerland has instead resulted in a situation in which a majority has unilaterally been able to decide that a religious minority can no longer exercise the right to build its own places of worship. Furthermore, concluded the president of Resetdoc’s Scientific Committee, it is absurd to justify this ban on the basis of a principle of reciprocity, simply because, in some Muslim countries, Christians have fewer rights and therefore our democracies are entitled to restrict the rights of their Muslim citizens. Such a principle not only denies the universality of democratic and liberal principles, but is also based on a totally arbitrary identification of Islam with it fanatical and extremist fringes.

Nilüfer Göle, a scholar of Turkish origin and a professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, expressed her agreement with Amato, and added that the exercising on minorities and immigrants of majority consensus, founded on national and western values, causes social tension that undermines the possibility of peaceful coexistence and having everyone participate in the Res Publica, which instead should be at the basis of democratic politics. Katajun Amirpur, a journalist and scholar of Islam at Zurich University, also observed that “one cannot be surprised by the reactions and resentment of those upon whom the will of others has been imposed, while they should have been and wished to become integrated.” According to this professor of Iranian origin, such unilateral impositions simply result in the radicalisation of many Muslim immigrants, because they isolate them, while in integration processes one should invest above all in general education, the training of imams, the teaching of the language and dispersing immigrants and indigenous inhabitants in the various residential districts.

Finally, the debate was closed by the scholar from the Berne Institute of Islamic Studies, Reinhart Schulze, who stated that the impression one gets is that the principles of laicity are in some way eluding our democracies, because the “cultural clash between the advocates of a secular order and the defenders of a post-secular order,” of which the Swiss referendum is but one example, proves only that “in many western states there is clearly a breaking down of the separation between the state and religion, and that governments are losing their neutrality by pursuing ideological and religious ambitions.” The idea of laicity, on which many European constitutions are founded, is threatened by states having an increasing tendency to behave as political-religious players, putting at risk our freedom to choose and destabilising the delicate balance on which civil society’s peaceful coexistence is founded.