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Swiss mosque minaret ban is tragic legislation

Switzerland’s ban on minarets is a bizarre and troubling piece of law-making, says Rory Olcayto

The Swiss vote last Sunday, for a nationwide ban on the construction of minarets, highlighted a darker, closeted, national trait that must also be present within their widely respected architectural culture.

Why our best architects – who have emerged from Europe’s most pluralist, absorbent culture – should seek to emulate the Swiss approach is a mystery to me. It’s the wrong model for building in Britain.

Ask yourself: what ugly ideological traits inform the tectonic purity of Swiss architecture? Does using ‘a limited palette of materials’ now sound euphemistically racist? But if you want to laugh rather than cry, about this tragic turn of events, perhaps you should ask how, precisely, will the Swiss government define ‘minaret’? This may be one of the most bizarre pieces of legislation ever conceived.

Let’s put the ruling in context. There are currently four minarets in Switzerland, one for every 100,000 Muslims in the country. In the capital, Berne, the largest mosque is in a former underground car park.

One of the minaret proposals that sparked the ban, in Langenthal, has been put on hold, and the Albanian community it was meant to serve currently worships in a disused paint factory. Those refugees fled Kosovo ten years ago, where, as Jonathan M Bloom, professor of Islamic and Asian art at Boston College explains in an article for Saudi Aramco World magazine: ‘Serbian forces regularly placed explosives inside minarets, not only destroying the towers but ensuring they would collapse onto and damage the adjacent mosques.’ 

By this destruction, the aggressors hoped to erase what they saw as signs of centuries of Ottoman (Muslim) oppression and it is this ‘cleansing’ impulse, though clearly not murderous, that is driving the Swiss to implement this irrational, cruel, ban.

Appropriately, the anti-Muslim referendum organised by the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) used architectural arguments to have minarets banned. They claim they have no functional value, now that the call to prayer is a recorded broadcast, and exist now purely as an expression of oppressive power. Furthermore, they say, minarets are alien to the Alpine environment.

Yet the SVP’s ignorance highlights our own blindspots. In Britain we know little about the minaret’s role in architectural culture. Did you know, for example, that they were not even a mosque component until 200 years after Islam’s founder, Muhammad, died?

The minaret is also typologically diverse, revealing Pagoda-style towers in China, belfry-like towers in Morocco and Tunisia, mud towers with wooden projections in West Africa and the 16th-century square minaret at Kudus in Java.

Pity the Swiss. They don’t know what they’re missing.

Rory Olcayto is features editor of the AJ

Readers' comments (6)

  • "A darker, closeted, national trait that must also be present within their widely respected architectural culture." Are you joking?
    This was not a vote by Swiss architects, it was a vote by the Swiss people as a whole. You really think the UK is the most pluralist and absorbent culture in Europe?
    Well, Switzerland comprises people of four different languages (all of which are official) and more than every fifth person living in Switzerland is a foreigner. Muslims might be small in numbers but they amount to 4,3% of the total population which is much higher than in the UK.
    Obviously, a majority of people are uncomfortable with that. As a Swiss I am deeply disappointed and embarrassed by the outcome of this vote. However, the reason why every now and then you find it hard to explain yourself to the world is because we actually get to vote on every little detail on the political agenda.
    No offense, but I have lived in the UK long enough to have a pretty good idea what the outcome of a similar vote would be in this country.

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  • Architectural interest in a building type is hardly any sound justification for building it.
    There have been muslims in this country since the middle ages (Henry I had a Saracen architect), yet there have been no minarets until in the late C20th - why now? Couple this with the rise of the burqua in this country and it suggests Islam in Europe is taking a more sinister tone.

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  • This isn't a great article and it demonstrates a limited understanding of the Swiss mentality. Switzerland is a neutral state at the heart of Europe that, above anything, values continuity. It is, to an extent, wary of globalising forces - but this does not equate to racism, xenophobia or any other sort of 'dark force'. You know why they use a limited palette of materials? Because they've got a lot of woods, and they were one of the pioneering countries in the field of reinforced concrete. By continuing to use them, they take advantage a skills set and natural resource whilst ensuring that their architecture is a continuum - rather that the stop start, jerking type of architecture we get in the UK and France which has done such a great job or promoting social cohension, eh?

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  • "You really think the UK is the most pluralist and absorbent culture in Europe? "
    - eh, YES!

    Its the reason London is an international city and buzzing, as it has been for 400 years, while Geneva is well, hmm Geneva. The UK is definitely one of the better places for that.

    Four different languages maybe, but from very similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds, whereas the uk is characterised by one official language but greater ethnic diversity. [Admitedley the consequence of some pretty brutal colonisation in centuries past maybe].

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  • London - population = 9 million
    Geneva - population = 180,000

    UK population 60m
    Swiss population 7.8m

    not really talking apples for apples, here are we?

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  • The fact that you pick Geneva as your object of comparison shows that you don't know anything about Switzerland.

    The fact that you think the UK is the most pluralist and absorbent society in Europe shows that you don't know much about other European countries either.

    And the fact that you think London is in any way representative for the UK as a whole shows that you don't even know your own country very well.

    I would suggest you travel more or read more - or both.

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