Mr. Morand Put It on His Roof, Shined Spotlights on It and Thumbed His Nose
BUSSIGNY, Switzerland — In November, Switzerland voted to ban the construction of new minarets, the tower like structures that adorn mosques. A week or so later, in an apparent act of defiance, a new minaret unexpectedly sprang up here.
But the new minaret is not attached to a mosque; this small town near Geneva doesn’t even have one. And it’s not the work of a local Muslim outraged by Switzerland’s controversial vote to ban the structures, which often are used to launch the call to prayer.
Instead, Bussigny’s minaret is attached to the warehouse of a shoe store called Pomp It Up, which is part of a Swiss chain. It was erected by the chain’s owner, Guillaume Morand, who fashioned it out of plastic and wood and attached it to a chimney. The new minaret, nearly 20 feet high and illuminated at night, is clearly visible from the main highway connecting Lausanne and Geneva.
“The referendum was a scandal,” Mr. Morand said recently at his cavernous warehouse, near pallets piled high with shoe boxes as pop music played on an old stereo system. “I was ashamed to be Swiss. I don’t have the power to do much, but I wanted to give a message of peace to Muslims.”
Mr. Morand’s provocation has attracted national interest as Switzerland grapples with the fallout of the referendum. On Nov. 29, 58% of Swiss voters approved the ban on new minarets, thus sparking a fresh debate around the world over the integration of Muslims in Western society. While civic and religious leaders in many Muslim countries denounced the ban, the feared backlash against Swiss interests around the world hasn’t materialized.
In Switzerland, the debate over the referendum is still hot. On Dec. 13, hundreds of Swiss Muslims protested the vote in Bern, the capital. According to Swiss legal experts, it is next to impossible to contest the outcome of a referendum. Indeed, on Dec. 18, a Swiss federal court refused to hear a plea by two Swiss citizens to nullify the vote.
Meanwhile, Mr. Morand’s gesture has rallied Swiss citizens upset by the vote. There are only four minarets in Switzerland, the most prominent one in Geneva. Only four of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, or states, voted against the referendum, including Vaud, the canton in which Bussigny is located. Bussigny, a sleepy commuter town of 8,000 just five miles from Lausanne, voted 52% against the ban. Bussigny has three Christian churches but no mosque, so the roughly 150 Muslims of the town must travel to Lausanne in order to worship in a mosque
When the referendum passed, the ban on the construction of new minarets instantly became Swiss law, but the government didn’t define exactly what constitutes a minaret. The law simply bans the construction of new ones. A parliamentary report outlining the issue before the vote says a minaret can exist without a mosque and without any religious function. Indeed, one of Switzerland’s four existing minarets is a free-standing structure not attached to a mosque
Mr. Morand, a Lausanne native who does not actively practice any religion, decided the day after the vote to build his minaret.
His business partner, an architect by training, searched the Internet for the right style of minaret, settling on one common in Turkey. After discarding a first design because it would have weighed 770 pounds , he settled on a second that used a large slice of a hard plastic tube to make the base. He fashioned a cap from pressed wood and painted it gold, topped by a gold crescent.
It took Mr. Morand’s workers half a day to raise the 265-pound minaret up four floors and over the lip of the roof. He then installed two 500-watt spotlights to light it at night.
Mr. Morand, a wiry 46-year-old who goes by the nickname Toto and dresses in jeans and a leather jacket, has dipped his toe into political causes before, taking out newspaper ads opposing the expansion of an incinerator with the slogan “Lausanne is not a trash bag.” He has also refused to travel to the U.S. since the start of U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Pomp It Up minaret, however, stands as his biggest political statement yet. The reserved Swiss have largely not confronted him, though he has received some nasty letters. “Are these the sort of wonderful Muslims you’re defending?” wrote a man from Geneva, enclosing a newspaper clipping on fiery sermons by radical imams in Switzerland. Mr. Morand proudly shows off the letter.
Instead, news of Mr. Morand’s minaret brought out supporters. A Muslim doctor from Geneva sent chocolates. “Thank you for restoring my faith in Switzerland,” wrote an admirer on a postcard bearing an image of a minaret.
“It’s great,” Tawfiq El Maliki, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Lausanne, said of the minaret. “A lot of people didn’t agree with the vote and they’re searching for a way to show how they feel.”
Claudine Wyssa, the town’s acting mayor — who called Mr. Morand’s action infantile — doesn’t think the do-it-yourself project qualifies as a minaret and plans no legal action.
“It doesn’t violate the law,” she said in an interview. “It has nothing to do with Islam. A minaret needs a mosque. In this case, there isn’t one. There’s just a shoe warehouse.”
Mr. Morand doesn’t plan to remove the minaret. “I’m leaving it up,” he says. “If they want to come and take it down themselves, I won’t fight it. But I’ll take photos of them doing it and send them to the media. Then they’ll have to take responsibility for it.” In the meantime, he has added several new spotlights to his roof to better show off his handiwork.
From Los Angeles to Pakistan via Doha and beyond, the protest action of Guillaume ‘Toto’ Morand is catching the headlines. Following the surprising 57 per cent vote in favor of the ban on minarets by the Swiss population on 29 November, Morand decided to defy the ban by building a life-size mock minaret on his own rooftop.
“The government and all the political parties, save the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP/UDC) who sponsored it, were against the initiative. But nobody actually stood up and resisted it,” he explains.
According to Morand, the government was too busy opposing another popular initiative put to the vote on the same day that was attempting to block Switzerland’s export of arms. Economic interests primed over social and political ones, he believes. “They did not take the threat of a ban on minarets seriously enough.”
“The fact that Switzerland does seven per cent of its foreign trade with Muslim countries doesn’t seem to have crossed their minds!” Morand adds.
“As for the political parties, they covered themselves in ridicule when the results became known. Instead of responding vigorously and saying ‘Stop’, they only pandered to the majority vote.”
He was particularly incensed when the head of the Swiss socialist party, Christian Levrat, declared that he understood the motivation of one of the leaders of the initiative and Christophe Darbellay, president of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP/PDC) added insult to injury by suggested immediately after the vote that burkas or veils worn by some Muslim women should be banned as well.
Morand who heads a trendy shoe empire in Switzerland is a hyperactive, but soft-spoken businessman who frequently rails against political incompetence. In 2008, he actively opposed the city of Lausanne’s decision to import rubbish to amortise its recently opened Tridel incinerator.
Accused of being a self-publicist by the SVP who claims that his main objective is to boost sales, Morand says that the allegation is unfair. “Mine is a niche market (Converses and other glamour sneakers) and since my shops are already all over the country, there is little room for expansion” he says.
He also felt the need to counterbalance the media coverage that the SVP was receiving, particularly the party’s Oscar Freysinger who declared, including to the Al Jazeera Arab TV news network, that he had “nothing against Muslims”.
Immediately after the results of the vote had come through, Morand and a longtime colleague, Serge Forni, decided that a symbolic gesture was necessary, so over the next week Forni disappeared into the basement to build the make-believe minaret.
The 25-metre tall minaret was attached to the chimney above Morand’s headquarters on 8 December and received immediate and far-reaching media attention.
The Los Angeles Times refers half-jokingly to Morand’s defiance as “practically an act of terrorism”. The Wall Street Journal has sent a correspondent to Bussigny for an in-depth article to be published in due course.
Britain’s TimesOnline indicates that although the minaret will not be used to summon Muslims to prayer, its very “construction could lead to the first legal wrangle over the ban”. But Morand is confident that it will be allowed to remain, although the materials of which it is made, plastic, wood and sprayed gold paint, will not have a long life.
“But to ban it would just mean further negative publicity for Switzerland,” he says.
“In my view, the vote wasn’t even legal,” Morand explains.
Hafid Ouardiri, the former spokesperson for the Geneva mosque has in fact announced this week that he is appealing to the European court in Strasbourg on the grounds that the motion voted is incompatible with the European convention on human rights.
The outcome of the vote was due to a “mix between ignorance and fear, as well as confusion between Islam and terrorism,” Morand claims, one that right wing parties everywhere are exploiting.