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