What is a minaret?

29 November 2009

The people of Switzerland have voted in a referendum in favour of adding a new clause to the constitution (Art 72 Para 3) which states ‘construction of minarets is forbidden’ (Der Bau von Minaretten ist verboten / La construction de minarets est interdite). Minarets already in existence are not threatened by this new paragraph, and this does not extend to building mosques or exercise of religion. It is however a symbol of tension between the western society and its Muslim inhabitants. This vote is liable and, in some cases, intended to be interpreted as an act against Islam and Muslims.

Banning new construction of minarets is an easy thing to do, but what exactly is a minaret? How do you decide if a structure is a minaret or not? Who decides? Usually minarets are spires in shape, but then would anything resembling a spire attached to a mosque be a minaret? Minarets call the faithful to prayer, so would any structure that perfoms this function be defined as a minaret? What happens when a Muslim group takes over a building with a spire-like structure and use it as a minaret (construction is banned, but not use)?

If local people and authorities wanted to prevent a construction of a minaret, then they should rely on planning laws (I’m pretty certain that the Swiss would have quite stringent processes) instead of passing this kind of constitutional amendment. The true sentiment may be ‘we don’t like minarets here’ but it’s much easier to defend the position that states ‘this particular style of building does not accord with the townscape’. Hypocritical? Yes, but less likely to cause trouble than what the majority in Switzerland have voted for. There will be conflict after conflict, as mentioned above.

Switzerland may well encounter similar responses as Denmark had before, and Muslims may refuse to buy Swiss watches and chocolates, and they may even close down bank accounts.