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 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.

Muslim cemeteries ‘long-term investments’

Switzerland’s tendency to allow cantons or towns to decide certain issues sometimes makes for piece-meal solutions, and such is the case with special sections of cemeteries for different religions.  The oldest “Muslim” cemetery was established in 1978 in Geneva’s Petit- Saconnex, after local Muslims came to an agreement with local officials.  Though not without controversy, many cities have since found solutions to allow special burials, with Lucerne being one of the last major cities to do so.  WRS’s Tony Ganzer reports that the Muslim cemetery there has been only moderately used so far, but that might not be a problem.

Cornel Suter stands on a gravel pathway near a plot of land covered in purple, white and yellow wildflowers, wooden and stone headstones line one side.  Suter is the head of Lucerne’s city cemetery, and he says since this Muslim section was installed in 2008 just 10 people have been buried here—7 adults and 3 children.

He says this number is as expected, or maybe they expected a few more.  But the low number is explainable, and will surely increase in the future.

Suter says the issue of having a special section of the cemetery for Muslims is no longer as controversial as it had been in 2008 or 2009.  But that didn’t stop the local paper the Luzerner Zeitung, from pointing out the number of burials was far short of the anticipated 11 to 16 per year.  “Instead of that there are the forementioned 10” the paper wrote. “Meaning at least for the moment each grave cost 20-thousand francs.”  The cost to create the section was 200-thousand francs.

ANDREAS TUNGER: “Having few graves after two years of existence of such a graveyard is a bit [of] a short-sided view at the whole question.  The number will rise.”

Andreas Tunger is a researcher at the University of Lucerne’s Center for the Study of Religions.

TUNGER:  “We can observe a similar picture in many of these Muslim cemeteries in Switzerland.  There have been areas within public cemeteries, where the direction of the graves is so that Muslim rites can be performed properly, and there are few Muslims to be buried there until now.”

Tunger says some Muslims who are immigrants choose to be buried in the countries of origin, meaning it will take a few years before residents with firmer roots in Switzerland choose to be buried in these special sections.  From Geneva, to Bern, to Basel, and perhaps soon to be St. Gallen, communities are negotiating with local religious groups to find space or arrangements to fill cemetery needs.  Tunger says some smaller villages have agreed to share special burial space for certain religious groups.

TUNGER: “At one point, earlier or later, you have to tackle this question, because the Muslims are there.  They have the constitutional right for a decent burial.  What experience shows is that more than a dozen municipalities in Switzerland have found a solution by a process in which local authorities and local Muslims sit at a table and  discuss what possibilities do we have, what solutions do we have.  Almost everywhere a solution has been found.”

Muslim graves

Cornel Suter at Lucerne’s cemetery says working with the local Muslim association has been helpful for a number of reasons—pointing out religious requirements, helping with language, or even mediating cultural differences.  He is thankful for that.

Researcher Andreas Tunger sees this example as paramount:

TUNGER: “What we have seen until now is very much goodwill on this very grassroots level, which the populist tendencies cannot so easily exploit for national campaigns.”

And Tunger says these dialogues also signal to different groups that long-term investments are being made to show the groups are part of society.  And he says that should not be underestimated.

 **This story won second place in the 2013 Religion Newswriters Association contest

Switzerland’s ‘part-time’ friar

Members of the Capuchin Order in Switzerland have a problem.  The population of Catholic friars is getting older, and younger generations are finding it difficult to give up modernity for life in a monastery.  But one Swiss man—the only one—is now half-way through a trial period with the Capuchins.  He signed up to live, work and pray with the brothers for three years and then he can return to life as before..or stay on for another three-year-term.  WRS’s Tony Ganzer caught up with this part-time brother in the medieval Rapperswil Monastery.

Rapperswil’s cobblestone streets are the best pathways from the ducks on Lake Zurich to the towering stone walls and medieval castle.

Past a rose garden, a small vineyard, and a pair of water fountains is the entry to the city’s monastery—formed to keep a Catholic presence in St. Gallen on the border with protestant Zurich.  Overlooking his garden stands Brother Fridolin.

BR. FRIDOLIN:  “We grow here flowers for the church, and also vegetables, and fruits…and kiwis…we have kiwis.”

Brother Fridolin has spent the last year and a half as a Capuchin Friar with a limited contract.  For three years he agreed to give up his work in Lucerne economic development to live with a Catholic order.

BR.FRIDOLIN:  “It was my 45 birthday, and I realize the first part of my life is over.  And I travel a lot.  I was always traveling with the bicycle—more than 70 countries.  This was also the point that for me religion became much more important.”

Brother Fridolin was raised Catholic, but his religious interest really picked up during the last few years.  He spent time with a religious community in Neuchâtel to distance himself from his past life, and to begin anew.

BR. “It was not so difficult because I was always interested in news things.  So after 10 years, after 15 years it is necessary to make change.”

Though he had dated, Brother Fridolin was never married, perhaps making the choice to leave Lucerne less difficult.  To join the monastery even for a short-time he took vows, which he admits probably deters some prospective friars.

BR. FRIDOLIN:  “A lot of people especially in this time, they are afraid for the future.  And a second part is also because we have here no sexuality, and so I think also a lot of men my age the want to be married, they want a relationship.  This is indeed a problem for the project, yes.”

BR. FRIDOLIN:  “When I am outside I see a lot of people who is a little bit unhappy.  And I am thinking, people must thinking about why we are unhappy, and what can we do against it.  Not everybody can go to the  monastery, that is also clear, but this could be a possibility to give to your life a new change.”

Brother Fridolin is the only short-term friar in Switzerland, though he hails the benefits.  He says he doesn’t have stress anymore, because work gets done when it gets done.  He gets a day off to see friends, or ride his bicycle.  He interacts with the public too, running the monastery store and caring for customers at the monastery guest house.  But he admits there are challenges.

BR. FRIDOLIN: “Our average of the age here in Rapperswil is 68.  So my brothers a lot of them they could be my father.  It is not a problem but sometime I miss people in my age.”

And that is a problem facing religious orders all over the country—attracting the next generation.  To Brother Fridolin, though the community provides all he needs.  He says now, he feels free.

Brother Fridolin isn’t sure yet he will sign up for another three-year term with the Capuchins, but he says the experience has been worth the change.

On the Web:
(German page explaining the program)

Professor: Debate over ‘Muslims in Europe’ not really about religion

Switzerland made headlines last year when voters approved a ban on the construction of new minarets—the tall structures attached to Mosques. It was high-profile proof that the country is also having difficulty coming to terms with a more diversified citizenry. And now two other cases are raising a public debate about cultures in Switzerland. WRS’s Tony Ganzer reports.

Early last month some Muslim families pulled their children out of state-mandated swim classes in Basel, citing religious concerns—they didn’t want boys and girls co-mingling in the same course. As a result the families were fined.

And yesterday in St. Gallen officials recommended a ban on headscarves in schools, saying a ban could help prevent discrimination of Muslim students by promoting openness.

MAURUS REINKOWSKI: “On a general plane it’s an issue which will have to face whenever societies are trying to mingle or to integrate a larger part of people into a society. So I think on a general plane it is not related to religion.”

Maurus Reinkowski is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Basel. He sees parallels to debates over guest workers from past decades, which brought large numbers of Italian, Spanish, Turkish and Eastern European workers to Switzerland and Germany. Those workers were often talked about only by ethnicity, and something similar is happening with Muslims.

REINKOWSKI: “We are not willing any longer to talk about people from Muslim countries individually, on an individual scale. So stressing that somebody is an Alevi from Turkey or Shii from Iran, but then that we tend to understand all people from Muslim countries primarily as Muslims.”

Max Frisch, Swiss author, wrote about the Gastarbeiter and the guest workers, and he said ‘we asked for workers but we got people instead.’ And it was kind of a shift in thinking that it’s not just a group of people, but a group of individuals who are coming. Is that the same here, that people need to really bring it down on a one-to-one level to understand?

REINKOWSKI: “This remark by Frisch is an astute remark, and is still valid. One could say that we thought we would bring in people from less-developed countries and then it turned out that they have a different identity, and they want to stress the different identity. So on the one hand we have this general, or let’s say social phenomenon or mass phenomenon. On the other hand we have to stress again and again that we will not have to talk about the Muslims as a complete entity but that they are very, very individual. And it is clear also from these cases now from Basel that it’s not related to the whole community of Muslims in Basel but only to a very, very small group.”

Reinkowski urges calm in the debate over Muslims in Europe, especially in small incidents like that of the parents pulling their children from swim classes. He says the families probably just acted to preserve a sense of modesty and propriety in their kids.

But Reinkowski also says this debate is on-going, and will be frustrating at times, and while debating we all need to be patient and must remember to relax.