Controversial Saudi cleric invited to Switzerland

This week the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland found out for sure it was approved to have its yearly conference in Fribourg.  The group, often known by its German acronym IZRS, has not been a stranger to controversy in the past.  In one campaign for an anti-Islamophobia rally it used yellow stars akin which many saw as resembling those by Nazis in World War Two.  The controversy this time surrounds one of the scheduled speakers at the conference, Saudi cleric Muhammad al-Arifi, who have been accused of advocating violence against women, homophobia and anti-semitism.  The IZRS denies these accusations.  WRS’s Tony Ganzer had a candid conversation with IZRS spokesman Qassem Illi, about claims about al-Arifi, and how the IZRS views them.  He began though, by asking about the conference’s theme: justice.

Perhaps it need not be said but the views of the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland are not the views of all Muslim groups in Switzerland.  And while the IZRS claims some of Saudi cleric Muhammad al-Arifi’s have been misunderstood, others say he is a radical.

There are a number of Muslim groups in Switzerland, a number of which were contacted for comment on this year’s IZRS conference in Fribourg.  One group that replied was the Forum for Progressive Islam.  Bülent Pekerman is with the group, and is also a Basel-City politician.

He says the IZRS allows radical and fundamentalist speakers at its events to bring attention on itself.  And this yearly conference is also an action of this kind..in 2009 there was radical German preacher Pierre Vogel, who was not allowed in to Switzerland.  Now they invite a controversial Saudi, Muhammad al Arifi.  And his opinions about women and other things are well known.  This is a clear provocation what to bring attention on themselves, he says.

Pekerman says the IZRS is of course not the official speaker for moderate Muslims in Switzerland, instead Pekerman says his group stands for that.  But moderate Muslims are not taken as seriously in Switzerland because they are well integrated, and inconspicuous.  But they still suffer under negative comments about Islam, or actions of radical movements like, he says, the IZRS.

He says moderate Muslims have it harder to get their message out.  “If the IZRS had invited a moderate speaker would we be having this conversation?” He asks.  “It would not be necessary, right?  That shows that folks don’t take moderate Muslims seriously here.”

Andreas Tunger is a researcher at the Center for the Research of Religions at the University of Lucerne.

Tunger says the IZRS holding its conference in Fribourg may indicate it is setting its sights on expanding more into the Romandie.  He doesn’t see any rapprochement between the major groups of Muslims in Switzerland though, he says the traditional associations don’t want the IZRS as a partner.

Bülent Pekerman says there are often disagreements even among those traditional groups, so finding more cohesive positions and recognition is difficult.  But he says simply, actions of radical organizations damage the image of Islam, and of Muslims in Switzerland.

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