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Muslim presence in Switzerland

The history of Islam in Switzerland is very recent. It was only in the 1960s that the first Muslim immigrants settled there. Islam was established through four channels : economic immigration, political immigration (asylum seekers and political refugees), family entry and settlement and the new generation (conversions and Muslims born of Muslim parent in Switzerland).

Characteristics of Islam and Muslims in Switzerland

Islam in Switzerland has unique characteristics : firstly, the Islam of European tradition. Presently, 86.6% of Muslims in Switzerland are of European origin (in this case, Turkey is considered to belong to the European continent). Muslims from the Balkan region represent 56.6% of the Muslim population in Switzerland while the Turks represent 20.2%. The number of Muslims in other European countries, especially the European Union, is a little higher than 3465 people or 1.1%. It is observable that despite the strong presence of Arab Muslims (Magreb and Middle East) in the media, there are only 17,608 of them, which represents 5.6% of the Muslims in Switzerland. This element rightfully raises the issue of representation of their discourse and their demands given, since the cultural contexts differ, they also relate to religion differently.

The second characteristic is low percentage of the Swiss in the Muslim religion. While there are 36,481 Muslims of Swiss nationality representing 11.75% of the Muslim population (310,807) they only constitute 0.6% of the Helvetian population (7,288,010). It is also observable that Muslims in Switzerland represent a significant percentage of 4.3% of the total Helvetian population. This percentage, which is relatively low compared to other European countries, can be explained by the primacy of the law regarding acquisition of the nationality by birth from Swiss parents over the acquisition by birth in the country (Article 15 of the 29 September 1952 – the federal law on acquisition and loss of the Swiss nationality).

The third characteristic of the Muslim population is related to urban settlement. They are, indeed, established in politically important cantons such as Berne (28,377) or economically important cantons like Zurich (66,520) or pharmaceutical strongholds like Basel (23,696) or International cities like Geneva (17,762) or industrial ones like Argovia (30,072). However, these figures need to be looked at from a holistic perspective given that the Muslims represent 4.3% of the Swiss population and that big cantons like Berne and Vaud do not reach half the population (Berne 2.9% and Vaud 3.9%) while Saint-Gallen and Glaris go beyond half (Saint Gall 6.1% and Glaris 6.5%).

The fourth characteristic is the balance between sexes. In 1970, Switzerland was home to 67.5% men and 32.5 women. In 2000, this gap had been considerably reduced. Since then, women represent 45.4% while men represent 54.4% of the Muslim population.

Furthermore, the Muslims in Switzerland constitute the young population and even very young. There are 91,948 Muslims under the age of 15, born in Switzerland, living and attending school there. This represents almost a third of the population of Muslims. It is also observable that 5,229 of them were less one year old in 2000. Furthermore, it is remarkable that those less than twenty-five years constitute almost half the Muslim population in Switzerland (151,815).

Finally, the Muslim population in Switzerland is mostly professionally active, considering those who are of a working age. In fact, 211,010 of them have reached the age at which they can have a professional and paid job. One must underline that more than two thirds of the Muslims in Switzerland participate in the Helvetian economy through work and through consumption as they pay tax subscriptions and contribute for their eventual retirement benefits.

Even though Islam represents, today, the second religion in Switzerland, it is not formally recognised by the State (status of public law or cantonal prerogatives). However, the Muslims today use Article 23 of the Swiss Constitution which gives them the right of association. Even though there is a lot of discord within the Muslim associations, the Muslim fabric becomes more and more active and tries to get organised in order to be autonomous. It also works towards becoming a representative organ or at least an identifiable interlocutor with communal, cantonal and may be federal authorities.

On the training of imams in Switzerland, a qualitative study was undertaken on the basis of interviews carried out with 100 representatives from Islamic communities and organisations, as well as with individual Muslims, and based on an analysis of the positions of the public institutions concerned. The authors note that the “two parties” favour training for imams and teachers of the Islamic religion on Swiss territory

Ulrich Rudolph, Dorothea Luddeckens, Irma Delacombaz, Andrea Lang, Formation en Suisse des imams et des enseignant-e-s en religion islamique ?, Université de Zürich, 2009 (Final Report).

The organisation of Muslim associations in the public sphere in Switzerland has also been the object of a study led by Professor Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi. The field survey is based on interviews and observations carried out in about 50 local, cantonal and national organisations. Local associations come into being in order to respond to the different social needs that the Muslim population may encounter. They then devote themselves first and foremost to satisfying these requests : prayer, coming together, transmission of the language and culture of origin, legal advice, chaplaincy…. At cantonal and national level, organisations tend to be a part of a more reactive movement towards state integration policies and in response to the construction of Islam as a problem in media and public spheres.

Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi, Sophie Nedjar, Samina Mesgarzadeh, L’émergence d’acteurs associatifs musulmans dans la sphère publique en Suisse, Université de Lausanne, 2010 (Final Report).
For further information see an overview of Islam in Switzerland : Vie musulmane en Suisse. Profils identitaires, demandes et perceptions des musulmans en Suisse, Research Group on Islam in Switzerland (GRIS) ;
see also the Reports of the Schweizerische Zentrum für Islam und Gesellschaft (SZIG, Swiss Center for Islam and Society, reports available in French or German).

On 29 November 2009 the Swiss voted to approve the ban on building minarets ; the conspicuous absence of Muslim voices during the debates was seen as a major factor explaining the unforeseen result. In the aftermath of the vote, a group of Muslims then assembled to form the RAMIS (Muslim Gathering for Integration in Switzerland), aimed at organising the Muslim community and becoming a visible and accessible interlocutor between Muslims in Switzerland, citizens and political powers.

D 8 octobre 2012    AMallory Schneuwly Purdie

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