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Religious groups and nonreligion


Muslim presence in Switzerland
The history of Islam in Switzerland is very recent. It was only in the 1960s that the first Muslim immigrants settled there. Islam was established through four (...)

Muslim presence in Switzerland

The history of Islam in Switzerland is very recent. It was only in the 1960s that the first Muslim immigrants settled there. Islam was established through four channels: economic immigration, political immigration (asylum seekers and political refugees), family entry and settlement and the new generation (conversions and Muslims born of Muslim parent in Switzerland).

Characteristics of Islam and Muslims in Switzerland

Islam in Switzerland has unique characteristics: firstly, the Islam of European tradition. Presently, 86.6% of Muslims in Switzerland are of European origin (in this case, Turkey is considered to belong to the European continent). Muslims from the Balkan region represent 56.6% of the Muslim population in Switzerland while the Turks represent 20.2%. The number of Muslims in other European countries, especially the European Union, is a little higher than 3465 people or 1.1%. It is observable that despite the strong presence of Arab Muslims (Magreb and Middle East) in the media, there are only 17,608 of them, which represents 5.6% of the Muslims in Switzerland. This element rightfully raises the issue of representation of their discourse and their demands given, since the cultural contexts differ, they also relate to religion differently.

The second characteristic is low percentage of the Swiss in the Muslim religion. While there are 36,481 Muslims of Swiss nationality representing 11.75% of the Muslim population (310,807) they only constitute 0.6% of the Helvetian population (7,288,010). It is also observable that Muslims in Switzerland represent a significant percentage of 4.3% of the total Helvetian population. This percentage, which is relatively low compared to other European countries, can be explained by the primacy of the law regarding acquisition of the nationality by birth from Swiss parents over the acquisition by birth in the country (Article 15 of the 29 September 1952 – the federal law on acquisition and loss of the Swiss nationality).

The third characteristic of the Muslim population is related to urban settlement. They are, indeed, established in politically important cantons such as Berne (28,377) or economically important cantons like Zurich (66,520) or pharmaceutical strongholds like Basel (23,696) or International cities like Geneva (17,762) or industrial ones like Argovia (30,072). However, these figures need to be looked at from a holistic perspective given that the Muslims represent 4.3% of the Swiss population and that big cantons like Berne and Vaud do not reach half the population (Berne 2.9% and Vaud 3.9%) while Saint-Gallen and Glaris go beyond half (Saint Gall 6.1% and Glaris 6.5%).

The fourth characteristic is the balance between sexes. In 1970, Switzerland was home to 67.5% men and 32.5 women. In 2000, this gap had been considerably reduced. Since then, women represent 45.4% while men represent 54.4% of the Muslim population.

Furthermore, the Muslims in Switzerland constitute the young population and even very young. There are 91,948 Muslims under the age of 15, born in Switzerland, living and attending school there. This represents almost a third of the population of Muslims. It is also observable that 5,229 of them were less one year old in 2000. Furthermore, it is remarkable that those less than twenty-five years constitute almost half the Muslim population in Switzerland (151,815).

Finally, the Muslim population in Switzerland is mostly professionally active, considering those who are of a working age. In fact, 211,010 of them have reached the age at which they can have a professional and paid job. One must underline that more than two thirds of the Muslims in Switzerland participate in the Helvetian economy through work and through consumption as they pay tax subscriptions and contribute for their eventual retirement benefits.

Even though Islam represents, today, the second religion in Switzerland, it is not formally recognised by the State (status of public law or cantonal prerogatives). However, the Muslims today use Article 23 of the Swiss Constitution which gives them the right of association. Even though there is a lot of discord within the Muslim associations, the Muslim fabric becomes more and more active and tries to get organised in order to be autonomous. It also works towards becoming a representative organ or at least an identifiable interlocutor with communal, cantonal and may be federal authorities.

On the training of imams in Switzerland, a qualitative study was undertaken on the basis of interviews carried out with 100 representatives from Islamic communities and organisations, as well as with individual Muslims, and based on an analysis of the positions of the public institutions concerned. The authors note that the “two parties” favour training for imams and teachers of the Islamic religion on Swiss territory

Ulrich Rudolph, Dorothea Luddeckens, Irma Delacombaz, Andrea Lang, Formation en Suisse des imams et des enseignant-e-s en religion islamique ?, Université de Zürich, 2009 (Final Report).

The organisation of Muslim associations in the public sphere in Switzerland has also been the object of a study led by Professor Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi. The field survey is based on interviews and observations carried out in about 50 local, cantonal and national organisations. Local associations come into being in order to respond to the different social needs that the Muslim population may encounter. They then devote themselves first and foremost to satisfying these requests: prayer, coming together, transmission of the language and culture of origin, legal advice, chaplaincy…. At cantonal and national level, organisations tend to be a part of a more reactive movement towards state integration policies and in response to the construction of Islam as a problem in media and public spheres.

Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi, Sophie Nedjar, Samina Mesgarzadeh, L’émergence d’acteurs associatifs musulmans dans la sphère publique en Suisse, Université de Lausanne, 2010 (Final Report).
For further information see an overview of Islam in Switzerland: Vie musulmane en Suisse. Profils identitaires, demandes et perceptions des musulmans en Suisse, Research Group on Islam in Switzerland (GRIS);
see also the Reports of the Schweizerische Zentrum für Islam und Gesellschaft (SZIG, Swiss Center for Islam and Society, reports available in French or German).

On 29 November 2009 the Swiss voted to approve the ban on building minarets; the conspicuous absence of Muslim voices during the debates was seen as a major factor explaining the unforeseen result. In the aftermath of the vote, a group of Muslims then assembled to form the RAMIS (Muslim Gathering for Integration in Switzerland), aimed at organising the Muslim community and becoming a visible and accessible interlocutor between Muslims in Switzerland, citizens and political powers.

See also Islam and Society (University of Fribourg)

D 8 October 2012    AMallory Schneuwly Purdie


Approximately 0.4% of people living in Switzerland say they are Hindus. Among them, 81.8% come from Sri Lanka (Tamils), 7.6% from India and 7.5% are Swiss. Several factors are behind the (...)

Approximately 0.4% of people living in Switzerland say they are Hindus. Among them, 81.8% come from Sri Lanka (Tamils), 7.6% from India and 7.5% are Swiss. Several factors are behind the development of Hinduism in Switzerland, a phenomenon that is relatively recent. First of all, in the 50s certain Hindu gurus – swamis like Vivekananda for example – began to form small groups of followers, often of Swiss nationality. The majority of these groups arrived in Switzerland in the 70s and the movement still continues today with such important names like Yogananda, Sivananda or Sai Baba.
This awareness of the Swiss population to Hindu theories is certainly not unrelated to the fact that yoga has become so popular in Switzerland over the last decades. It is interesting to underline that most people who practice yoga have never looked into the details of its religious origins. Today there are many professional yoga schools - the first Swiss school of yoga opened in 1948 – and groups that practice it. Moreover, there was an important immigration of Tamils in the 90s, mostly refugees.

While most Tamils describe themselves as Hindus, the affiliation link is not as clear when it comes to the followers of Hindu gurus, and even less clear when it comes to people who take yoga classes. That is why it is difficult for observers to estimate and define the boundaries of Hinduism.
The tolerance of Swiss society towards Hindu movements varies according to the kind of group. On one hand, Tamil immigrants are relatively well respected among the Swiss population (it should be underlined that most people do not make the connection with religious affiliation) and yoga is generally considered a physical technique that is good for your health. On the other hand, however, since the Swiss are very critical of "gurus" and "sects", there are many prejudices and groups are lumped together, thus causing problems with the movements. In the case of the Divine Light Zentrum (founded in 1966) in Winterthur, for example, with Swami Omkarananda and his followers being in conflict with their neighbours, the situation got out of hand and turned violent and the religious leader and some of his followers ended up in prison.

D 8 October 2012    AJoëlle Sanchez AJörg Stolz


The Jewish community of Switzerland represents 0.25% of the current population - this percentage has remained stable over the last thirty years – whereas in 1920 it was at 0.54%. This fall is (...)

The Jewish community of Switzerland represents 0.25% of the current population - this percentage has remained stable over the last thirty years – whereas in 1920 it was at 0.54%. This fall is mainly due to the “excellent integration” of Jewish followers, a direct result of the increase in mixed marriages – 31.7% in 1940 / 51.6% in 1990 – and the disaffiliation of children born of these marriages.

Historically, the Jewish presence in Switzerland dates back to the Roman era. In the Middle Ages, Jews were accused of different wrongdoings and were persecuted. It wasn’t until 1866 that they were granted equal rights and that they once again came to live in the big cities of Switzerland. At the end of the 19th century, large numbers of Jewish refugees (4, 000 to 5, 000 people) arrived in Switzerland from Russia and Poland. The immigration of Jews from Northern Africa occurred during the 50s and 60s.

It should be underlined that, with respect to the social and economic status of its members, the Jewish community is very well integrated into Swiss society. In 2000, 78.8% of Jews living in Switzerland had Swiss citizenship. They belong, for the most part, to the middle and upper class and have, on average, more education than Swiss citizens who are not Jewish. Most synagogues are located in Switzerland’s four largest cities: Zurich, Geneva, Basle, Berne and their conurbations.

Although anti-Semitism is punishable under Swiss law, people’s reactions towards Jews are not always positive. In fact it seems that religious anti-Semitism is on the verge of disappearing, replaced by a new anti-Zionism, due especially to the policy adopted by Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians. Another reason lies clearly in the pressure that Jewish groups exerted on Swiss banks in the 1990s because of their role in the Second World War and afterwards.

For more information: Daniel Gerson, Sabina Bossert, Les mutations du judaïsme en Suisse, Université de Bâle, 2010. final Report.

D 8 October 2012    AJoëlle Sanchez AJörg Stolz

"New religious movements" and "parallel religiosity"

In Switzerland there are a certain number of "new religious movements" (NMR). Many proclaim Hindu, Buddhist or Christian roots but there are also some that have different foundations, such as (...)

In Switzerland there are a certain number of "new religious movements" (NMR). Many proclaim Hindu, Buddhist or Christian roots but there are also some that have different foundations, such as Scientology or the Raelians. The importance of these movements is generally quite modest, with less than 0.1% of the population belonging to such groups. This percentage contrasts greatly with the major attention, most often critical, they receive from the media. Everyone remembers the tragedy of the Order of the Solar Temple (based in Switzerland and in Canada), whose leaders organised the murders and mass suicide of its members in 1993. This is one of the reasons why Swiss public opinion pays very close attention to the actions of the NMR (new religious movement).

Very few of these groups were founded in Switzerland, besides the Fiat Lux Order founded in 1980 in Zurich by Uriella (Erika Bertschinger) and the St. Michaelsvereinigung founded in Dozwil (canton of Thurgovia) by Paul Kuhn (who believed he was the reincarnation of the apostle Paul). The most important NMR in Switzerland is the Anthroposophical movement founded by the German, Rudolf Steiner.

The NMR, whether they are eastern or western-based, are surrounded and immersed in an environment of parallel religiosity that the English refer to as "the cultic milieu". The groups present in Switzerland are no exception. This milieu brings together in the same social system individuals with very different and syncretistic beliefs, including reincarnation, veganism, ecology or psychic energy. There is a market, in the economic sense, which offers these people products that correspond to their beliefs (astrology, eastern meditation, parapsychology, UFOs, yoga, new therapies etc.). The offer is very eclectic and the demand is growing strongly because the followers in this milieu are eager to try different products, they want to be able to switch from one therapy to another or even, from one guru to another.
This is why it is also very difficult in this case to determine how big the "cultic milieu" really is. In a recent survey, 4% of people living in Switzerland said they felt close to the “New Age”, which is virtually a synonym of parallel religiosity. This milieu is making itself more visible through esoteric bookstores, the increasing number of exhibitions on parallel religiosity (for example the Annual Esoteric Exhibition in Zurich) and esoteric magazines (Recto – Verseau in French and Spuren in German).

Source of data:
- Projet FNSRS Nr. 12-52643.97 : Religion et lien social : construction et régulation des mobilisations religieuses. Project Director: Roland J. Campiche; Representative survey, 1999.
- Campiche, Roland and Dubach, Alfred et al., Croire en Suisse(s). Lausanne: éditions l’Age d’Homme, 1992. Base: sondage représentatif de 1989.
- Censuses of the Federal Statistics Office.

D 8 October 2012    AJoëlle Sanchez AJörg Stolz

Religious minorities

For futher information, see:
Mineurel, website of information on religious minorities, for Switzerland.
Inforel (in German), website of information on religions in (...)

  • For futher information, see:
    - Mineurel, website of information on religious minorities, for Switzerland.
    - Inforel (in German), website of information on religions in Switzerland.

D 17 May 2019   


D 3 March 2020   

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