GENEVA/LAUSANNE Local Muslims are concerned by stalls in Swiss streets promoting Ansar al-Sharia, a Salafist group on the US terrorist list.
Distributing the Koran may seem harmless enough, but Arab speakers reported they were also attempting to recruit fighters for Syria. Early this month, one kiosk appeared in Geneva’s Place du Molard, and others were spotted in Lausanne and elsewhere, prompting local Muslims to contact the media. RTS sent a TV crew to Lausanne and a young Tunisian contacted the Tribune de Genève wondering why a permit had been issued to a group banned from Switzerland since 2012.
City officials admitted they had been duped by someone claiming to be the Imam of an Albanian cultural centre in Fribourg. But Albinfo, a Lausanne-based information website for the Albanian Diaspora, published a denial. Its director, Bashkim Iseni, said he did not know who had requested the permit. “We even spoke to the union of Imams in Switzerland, who denounced the use of an Albanian name to promote an extreme ideology.”
“The interesting thing about using an Albanian name,” said Iseni, “is that they realized Albanians are known for having a very liberal approach to Islam, so… would not draw the attention of the authorities. It’s a warning to all of us.” The Salafist movement, a 100 year-old Sunni sect, became more radical with the Arab Spring, conducting a violent jihad to impose its strict interpretation of Shari’a law in Libya and Tunisia. It has recently begun recruiting fighters in Germany, the UK and Switzerland.
Albinfo is one of several Swiss organizations serving as a bridge between Islam and other religions. In January, a new Arab institute was opened in Geneva by former mayor Patrice Mugny and Alain Bittar, owner of the Arab-language bookstore L’Olivier in Pâquis. With a name grander than its premises, the Institute of Arab and Mediterranean Cultures (ICAM) seeks dialogue with other religions, but also to bring various strands of Islam together. “The problem is that there is not one Muslim community. There are many types of Muslims. Here in Switzerland we have Turkish Muslims, Albanian Muslims, Arab Muslims.” Egyptian-born Bittar seems uniquely positioned. Of Syrian-Lebanese family origin, he arrived in Switzerland 54 years ago on a Sudanese passport to attend boarding school.
Following 9/11, Bittar became increasingly concerned as Western eyes viewed Islam as linked to terrorism rather than a religion with different faces. “It is important to show that in this Arab world there is great diversity. It is not uniform, it has a rich and ancient culture – not just oil,” he said. ICAM holds monthly discussions at L’Olivier, beginning with a prayer by a Sufi Imam to show diversity. “Then we have a dialogue involving a priest, a rabbi, a Buddhist and a Muslim,” he explained. “These meetings have been very well received and revolve around different themes, such the social and religious origins of fanaticism.”
Iseni shares similar views. “Religion does not occupy the same place in the identities of Albanians, Bosnians or Turks. Arab Muslims define themselves through Islam because they come from societies where Muslims are in a clear majority.” In the Balkans, he added, they are a minority with religion kept private.
Iseni considers it vital for moderate Muslims to speak out “about the reality of Islam, which is a pacific, tolerant religion”. The Tribune de Genève reported an incident similar to the one on the Place du Molard in May at the Plainpalais flea market, where someone noticed pro-Jihad banners. The City of Geneva had also granted the group a permit. An investigation is now underway.