OPINION: Inside Switzerland’s ‘Diverse Military’

OPINION: Inside Switzerland’s ‘Diverse Military’

Thu, Jul 6th 2023

A conversation-provoking photo of Swiss military members practicing their Islamic faith has been circulating in Swiss media. Our Native Swiss Writer, Emanuel Boder, digs deeper.
Soldiers of the Swiss Army Honor Troop shoot outside of the artillery in Lavey-Morcles (Keystone SDA).

Several years ago when the average person in Western society would hear about a “Diverse Military,” thoughts of a variety of military disciplines, equipment and strategies would have come to mind. However, in the 21st century, a military which is “diverse” is one which is staffed, in part, by people who identify racially, ethnically and/or religiously differently than the native population.

And this racial, ethnic, and/or religious diversity, we are told, is a winning strategy – at every level of our society – even the military.

Swiss soldiers of the 6th Mountain Rifle Battalion taking time out for their prayers.
Image of Diversity

On the 29th of June a photo made it’s rounds on social media, as well as throughout the Swiss news media. The photo shows over a dozen soldiers in uniform kneeing on mats, with faces and palms to the ground. In front of them another single uniformed individual is also kneeling while facing upright, with a flag positioned just to his right.

To the left and right of this spectacle are several dozen more uniformed soldiers, standing, as if at attention, most with their hands clasped behind their backs. In the distance one sees parked military vehicles lined up, and a skyline of mountains.

The photo was taken in Eastern Switzerland and depicts Swiss soldiers of the 6th Mountain Rifle Battalion (Gebirgsschützenbataillon 6) taking part in the opening ceremony of the Islamic holiday known as Eid al-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice). The ceremony was led by Imam Muris Begovic, who as recently as last year (2022) became the first Imam to join the Swiss army’s pastoral care unit (Armeeseelsorger).

Born in Bosnia, Mr. Begovic received his Swiss nationality at 28, which meant that at the age of 40 he had to complete a three-week mini version of Swiss recruitment training in 2021 in order to meet the military requirements. Begovic is also the managing director of both The Association of Islamic Organizations in Zurich and the Muslim Chaplaincy Zurich.

Muslim devotees pray at a mosque in Geneva in June 2020 (Keystone SDA).
‘Imam’ and the Swiss Military

There are no official statistics on the religious composition of Swiss military staff, however we do know that at around 30% of the Swiss military are naturalized Swiss – people with an immigration background – and that “around 37% of Muslims living in Switzerland are Swiss citizens (as of 2019), 8.75% of 15- to 24-year-olds in Switzerland are Muslims and 0.26% Jewish,” according to federal statistics.

Since at least 2017 the Swiss military has been open to the idea of having an in-house Imam, apparently due to the increase in demand for Islamic advice and counseling.

Downtown Bern on Switzerland’s National holiday August 1 (Keystone SDA).
All is well that ends well

Regardless of how one feels about these events, the honest among us will agree that this is something novel, if not also experimental. We will have to wait and see how questions such as these are answered:

– How will the Imam deal with the multiple branches of Islam (Sunnis, Shiites, and etc.) and the longstanding conflicts between them?

– How compatible are Islamic teachings (i.e. Sharia Law) with the Swiss constitution and military regulations? Which takes precedent?

It is no secret that Christians, Muslims and Jews have been at war, literally and figuratively, with one another for centuries. However, history also bears witness to periods of relative peace between them.  

Let us hope for the latter.

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