20 July 2019
Switzerland hasn’t witnessed any major social conflicts due to the rapid rise in Muslim population numbers, but authorities can’t take things for granted. Photo: Reuters
Switzerland hasn’t witnessed any major social conflicts due to the rapid rise in Muslim population numbers, but authorities can’t take things for granted. Photo: Reuters

Will Swiss see social tensions due to Muslim population growth?

I took a business trip to Switzerland recently, and what struck me most about the country this time was rapid growth of its Islamic population.

However, since perception can be deceptive, we must refer to the actual figures, which have proven me correct.

In 1980, Muslims only accounted for 1 percent of the total population in Switzerland. However, since then the percentage of the Swiss population that is Islamic has continued to grow: it was 5 percent in 2013, and 6.1 percent in 2016.

Based on this ongoing upward trend, the Pew Research Center has estimated that even if the Swiss government stopped accepting new Islamic immigrants right now, the numbers of Muslims in the country would still continue to grow, and would account for 8.2 percent of the total population by 2050.

Even though quite a number of Syrian refugees have settled in Switzerland over the past several years, the local Islamic population is still mainly composed of immigrants from Kosovo, Albania and Turkey, many of whom arrived at the country as migrant workers back in the 1950s and 60s.

And the main reasons why the numbers of Muslims in Switzerland have continued to increase in recent years are, firstly, these Islamic migrant workers have proven rather prolific over the years. And their population growth has been further accelerated by family reunions.

Second, the arrival of refugees in recent years has also boosted the total numbers of Muslims in the country.

And third, an increasing number of affluent Middle East families have bought properties across Switzerland.

Although these recently arrived Muslims, be they naturalized or permanent Swiss citizens, migrant workers, refugees or illegal aliens, have not provoked massive social conflicts in Switzerland yet, they have given rise to quite a number of potential issues.

For example, the rapid increase in the number of mosques across Switzerland in recent years has become a cause for growing concern among the local public.

In particular, since the Swiss government doesn’t require operators of religious facilities to disclose their funding sources like the neighboring right-wing Austrian administration does as a means to curb Islamic fundamentalism, mosques across Switzerland are increasingly becoming home to Islamic extremists and radical key opinion leaders.

For instance, the grandson of the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has been using Switzerland as a platform to promote Islamic extremism and has come under surveillance by the local authorities.

In the meantime, an increasing number of Swiss are getting dismayed at the fact that some Islamic priests from Libya, who are staying in Switzerland as refugees and are living on government allowances, are spreading religious hatred in the country.

As far as the sensitive issue of whether to allow Muslim women to wear burqas in public is concerned, some local authorities in Switzerland have legislated against it before, only to be overturned by other government apparatuses afterwards.

At present, the Swiss government is following a middle course on this highly controversial issue: while wearing burqas isn’t banned, some government departments are given the authority to order Muslim women to lift up their veils for inspection.

Nevertheless, despite the growing public dismay at Muslims, Switzerland is still currently among the most religiously tolerant countries on the European continent. According to the statistics of Religion Monitor, only 17 percent of Swiss have claimed that they are unwilling to have Muslims as their neighbors, which is quite low by today’s European standards.

However, given that Switzerland is divided into German-speaking and French-speaking areas, which means the country is also vulnerable to the influence of ultra-right sentiments that have already swept across both Germany and France in recent years, the present tolerance among the native Swiss towards the Muslims could be quite fragile.

And the situation is further compounded by the fact that the Islamic issue is very likely to become a major concern on local levels since cantonal governments in Switzerland very often use referendums to determine the direction of major public policies.

As such, it would only take a single isolated incident, such as a massive Islamic terrorist attack on Swiss soil, to turn local public opinion completely against the Muslims.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 7

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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