The Magazine

Cuckoo Clocks and Jihadists

What Switzerland is now producing.

Jul 16, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 41 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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As jihadist plots continue to be uncovered from Glasgow to New Jersey, it is plain that no place can be considered entirely safe. That includes placid, would-be neutral Switzerland, where a series of incidents and controversies in recent months points to a small but untiring Saudi-sponsored Islamist presence--and to a growing determination to resist its excesses on the part of some Swiss citizens and the Swiss authorities.

Switzerland has more than 300,000 Muslims--some 4.3 percent of the population--few of whom are of Arab descent. Most came as migrants or refugees from the former Yugoslavia (57 percent) or Turkey (20 percent). Yet the small minority who are Arabs (5 percent) have made their mark.

The influential Geneva Islamic Center was founded as long ago as 1961, with roots in the international Islamist movement. Its leader, Said Ramadan, had been expelled from Nasser's Egypt for ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by his father-in-law, Hassan al-Banna. Ramadan also helped create the World Muslim League, funded by the Saudi establishment for the purpose of spreading Wahhabism around the world. Today, Ramadan's sons Tariq, intellectual superstar of European Islamism, and Hani, head of the Geneva Islamic Center, continue to serve the cause.

But the Islamic Center is not the only Islamist institution in the Swiss capital. There is also the Grand Mosque of Geneva, which has undergone sweeping leadership changes in recent months. It has a new director, fresh from Jeddah, who suddenly fired four executives at the end of March. The Swiss daily Le Temps reported that the firings were initiated by the Saudi consul general in Geneva. The fired executives have sued, claiming they lost their jobs for being too moderate.

The new imam at the mosque is Youssef Ibram, a Moroccan who studied Islamic law for six years in Saudi Arabia. He is remembered in Switzerland for his part in a public controversy about the stoning of adulterers. In 2004, in an interview with the Swiss French magazine Coopération, he said, "Regarding stoning, I cannot be against it since it is included in the Islamic law." The ensuing flap prompted Ibram to resign from his position as imam of the Islamic Center in Zurich. Ibram is also a member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, a transnational group made up mostly of non-European Islamists close to the Muslim Brotherhood and headed by Al Jazeera star Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi. This body takes upon itself to assess the conformity of European laws to Islam.

Meanwhile in Bern, plans were announced in May to build an Islamic center including a museum, a luxury hotel, a conference center, and a mosque, at a cost of up to $50 million. The project raised even some Muslim eyebrows. In particular, Saida Keller-Messahli, founder of the Zurich-based Forum for a Progressive Islam, told Le Temps she was concerned about the lack of transparency regarding the benefactors and initiators of the project, and that she did not see how the Bern Muslim community could raise such a sum without petrodollars from Saudi Arabia or Iran. Farhad Afshar, the Iranian who is spokesman for the organization planning to raise the funds for the project, denies this. By now, however, the question is moot: The other day the city of Bern turned down the development.

Others, too, are challenging the Islamists. A proposal to ban minarets in Switzerland has been floated by Ulrich Schluer, a member of parliament from the right-wing UDC (Union Démocratique du Centre). The idea has been featured in the Arabic media and was discussed recently on Al Jazeera's website, where some net surfers proposed boycotting Swiss banks (which hold a lot of Saudi and other Arab money) if the ban is enacted. Al Hayat and Al Arabiya television also expressed concern. Annoyed, Schluer told Le Temps: "Al Jazeera states that Switzerland wants to ban 'mosques or putting Islamic religious symbols on buildings,' but we never said this! We are against minarets, which we consider a symbol of political conquest, but not against mosques, because we respect the freedom of religion."

Schluer takes a dim view of Al Jazeera. Recently he sought an opinion from the Federal Council as to the propriety of the decision by the largest Swiss cable company, Cablecom, to carry Al Jazeera, despite the channel's showing innocent hostages having their throats slit. Perhaps remembering the Danish cartoons controversy, Socialist MP Andreas Gross has urged Swiss ambassadors in Arab countries to explain the Swiss political system to dampen cross-cultural misunderstanding.

Regardless of whether Schluer's proposal takes off, there are indications that Swiss authorities are taking a stronger stand against Islamist extremists. In May, they denied entry to Switzerland to Salman al Odeh, threatening him with up to six months' imprisonment and a fine of up to 10,000 Swiss Francs (about $8,200).

The Federal Police explained their decision this way: "Al Odeh is one of the most influential men on the Radical Islamist scene, a Wahhabi and a fanatic close to Osama Bin Laden. He was jailed in Arabia between 1994 and 1999 because of his extremist views, and from his cell continued the call for an armed Jihad against the infidel Western nations."

In fact, bin Laden cited Odeh as a favorite religious authority in his early communiqués and defended him after he was jailed. His release in 1999 was negotiated in a deal with the Saudi government. In exchange for promising to mute his criticism of the regime, Odeh was allowed to go free and resume preaching, both at home and abroad. He has done so actively, developing the website Islam Today to spread extremism worldwide, organizing political statements, and encouraging jihad against America in Iraq.

In an interview with the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat, al Odeh called the accusations "a big lie impossible to believe," and attributed them to "extremist Zionist forces." He dismissed as ludicrous his alleged links to bin Laden, saying, "I met Bin Laden only once 20 years ago while I was visiting the Sharia faculty." Al Odeh added that he is suing the Swiss authorities.

Similarly, courts are being used in new, if hardly draconian, ways. On June 22, for the first time ever, two people were convicted in a Swiss court of support for a criminal organization in a case linked to Islamist terrorism. The two ran radical websites, complete with images of executions of hostages, massacres of civilians, disfigured people, and detailed instructions for bomb-making, as well as a chat room that promoted jihad. One of the defendants, Malika el-Aroud, is the widow of Abdessater Dahmane, who helped assassinate Massoud, the Afghan Northern Alliance leader killed by al Qaeda on September 9, 2001; she was given a six-month suspended sentence. The other defendant, her boyfriend, a Tunisian living in Switzerland, was sentenced to prison for six months.

In its May 31, 2006, Swiss Domestic Security Report, the Federal Police stated plainly that violent Islamists are using Swiss soil as a strategic location from which to spread propaganda and provide financial and logistical support to people abroad. The report also underlined Geneva's growing importance as a transit point for volunteers from French-speaking Switzerland and France going to join the jihad in Iraq. Further, wrote Jean-Luc Vez, director of the Federal Police, in the foreword: "European-born jihadists could come back from Iraq and other war zones as experienced fighters, linked to a network with the same ideology. . . . These isolated individuals, but also al Qaeda, remain capable of organizing terrorist attacks."

Coincidentally, the largest synagogue in Geneva was gutted by fire on May 24, in what has been ruled a case of criminal arson. As of now, no arrests have been made. But any illusion that Switzerland was somehow immune to the fires of intolerance is long since gone.

Olivier Guitta is the founder of the foreign affairs and counterterrorism newsletter The Croissant.