GENEVA – Media coverage and rightwing political maneuvers were the main reasons highlighted in a recent study on how the image of the Swiss Muslim minority was tarnished in the tiny European state to be suspected as fundamentalists and terrorists.
“It wasn’t as much the media reports about the 9/11 attacks as the bombings in Madrid and London, as well as the Danish caricatures of the Muslim prophet,” Patrik Ettinger, one of the two editors of the study told swissinfo.ch on Saturday, July 9.
“The reporting on these events led to the creation of the image of a violent Islam and a clash of civilizations.”
The study, led by Ettinger and Kurt Imhof of Zurich University, was performed by the National Research Program to look into religious pluralism.
Funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, it focused on the way Muslims were portrayed in media outlets as well as the rightwing politicians aiming at getting voters’ support.
“It was in particular the Swiss People’s Party and to a lesser extent the Federal Democratic Union who took the image of Muslims out of an international context and put it into a national one,” Ettinger pointed out.
It also said that Swiss Muslims were singled out as fundamentalists, regardless of their country of origin, social background and whether they are highly qualified professionals or asylum seekers.
Such tarnishing of image was referred to a broad change in Switzerland role in Europe after the political elite were discredited, enabling the People’s Party to take advantage of the situation and promote its own rightwing agenda.
“There were also grave fears that Protestant cities in German-speaking Switzerland would become predominantly Catholic when waves of Italians immigrated in the 1960s – which is very similar to today’s fears of an Islamicization of Switzerland,” Ettinger said.
“And just as few Catholics from Italy and Spain were fundamentalist in their views, the same can be said of the majority of Muslims here now.”
Being described as a main reason behind Muslim stigmatization in Switzerland, the People’s Party attacked the study, questioning its results.
“Coverage of Islam in the study has no bearing on the real situation in the country and popular perceptions,” People’s Party General-Secretary Martin Baltisser told swissinfo.ch.
Baltisser said integration issues, respect for the rule of law, and attitudes toward family life, school and public institutions were reasons for debate.
In 2009, the far-right party led a 57 percent of the voters’ approval on a proposal to ban the construction of mosque minarets nationwide.
There are nearly 160 mosques and prayer rooms in Switzerland, mainly in disused factories and warehouses.
Only four of them have minarets, none of them used to raise the Azan, the call to prayer, which is banned.
The huge propaganda surrounding the voting, however, was regarded as a main cause of tarnishing the image of peaceful Muslims in the European country.
Feeling the pinch of stigmatization, Swiss Muslims supported the findings of the study as referring directly to the origins of the problem.
“I think the statement is spot on that the media have failed to differentiate between global terror on the one hand and Islam on the other, and from Muslims in Switzerland, most of whom are integrated,” Sakib Halilovic, the imam of the Bosnian community in Zurich, said.
Halilovic said he has had to defend himself for years against generalizations which he said amount to denigration.
Yahya Hassan Bajwa, a member of canton Aargau’s parliament who runs an intercultural communications office in Zurich, agrees.
“The findings are correct, Muslims were considered differently after 9/11,” said Bajwa, who has lived in Switzerland since his childhood.
“Even my long-time doctor asked me at the time if I had anything to do with terrorism,” he remembered, adding that he believes the People’s Party have had a direct influence on the image people have of Muslims as bogeymen.
According to the CIA Factbook, Switzerland is home to some 400,000 Muslims, representing 5 percent of the country’s nearly eight million people.
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