Switzerland's public diplomacy. The Minaret controversy and a determination of the status quo

Term Paper 2013 18 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Miscellaneous


Table of contents


1 The Minaret debate
1.1 Background
1.2 Swiss public diplomacy effort
1.2.1 The actor
1.2.2 Foreign Policy Aim
1.2.3 Target audience and the used message
1.2.4 Tools and channels
1.3 Public Diplomacy Success?

2 Presence Switzerland today
2.1 Defining a status quo?

3 Conclusion



It will be the aim of this paper to explore Switzerland’s public diplomacy efforts in the light of the “Minaret debate” (from 2007-2009). This case study could be seen as an example of Switzerland’s public diplomacy effort to protect (maintain) the image of the country abroad. On the basis of the Minaret initiative, it is possible to extract and analyse the different parts of a public diplomacy theory by asking, inter alia, the following questions: Who was the actor? What was the foreign policy aim? Who was the target audience and what was the message used? What tools and channels did the actor use?

The case analysis will further help to determine the status quo of Switzerland’s communication abroad (and in this sense the public diplomacy).

The “status quo” is thereby the situation in which the actor, “Presence Switzerland”, operates nowadays. In order to speak about the “status quo”, and to draw some conclusions at the end, it is helpful to define the “status quo ante”. In this sense, the author defines the “status quo ante” as the time before 2007 and the “status quo” as the time after 2007 until the present day. The reason for this clear cut is a change in the public diplomacy model; “Presence Switzerland” (the official public diplomacy agency in Switzerland) went through a changing process in the years from 2007 to 2009. The former PRS (Presence Switzerland) was an agency assigned from the government, with the task to conduct image branding abroad. It compromised members from the federal administration, members from partly state-run organizations and as well members from private organizations. Oppose to that, the later Presence Switzerland (from 2009) was a sub-agency of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, which means a complete government institution.1

Not least because of this differentiation, this paper will eventually provide an example of how a state actor conducts public diplomacy and therefore has the chance to contribute to the relatively young academic field of public diplomacy.

1. The Minaret debate

1.1 Background

The direct democracy system in Switzerland gives its citizens the chance to propose legislations by a so-called popular initiative. If parties, interest groups or even individuals manage to get at least 100 000 signatures in support for the idea, it will come to a nationwide vote.2 In 2007 the right-wing SVP (Swiss Peoples Party) launched the “Anti-Minaret Initiative” with the aim to ban the construction of new minarets in the country. In July 2008 they were able to submit the initiative with over 100 000 signatures. The proposal not only caused reaction within Switzerland - since all parties and the government opposed the initiative - but also abroad. Tremendous international media coverage was noticed in Australia, Norway, Germany, the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Turkey. The Federal Council acted very quickly and established (even before the submission of the initiative) a special task force to observe further developments. On November 29th 2009 the election results were spread in the news. The initiative was adopted by the majority of the Swiss voters (57.5 per cent) and therefore the new law, which forbids building minarets, came into effect.3

However, the delicate issue during the minaret debate (2007-2009) was the underlying intentionality. The actual phrasing of the initiative stated “just” the ban of a certain construction. There was no motivational explanation given.4 So on the first hand it seemed to be more an architectural than a religious issue. Nonetheless, the SVP’s political agenda is build around the main topic of immigration and related Swiss security concerns. With provocative posters, (even before the actual minaret debate) the SVP fuelled the discussion in Switzerland about immigrants from Arabic countries. In their campaigning they constantly connected the cue words “Islam” and “threat”. Thereby, the SVP was able to reach people’s emotions and also was partly responsible for the latent “islamophobia” in Switzerland. Within this context, the debate was, from the beginning on, not seen as an architectural one, but rather as a religious one.5

This ultimately triggered the debate and even more attracted the foreign media coverage. Most articles (or better criticism) were published by the neighbouring countries (Germany, France, Italy) and also by the United States and the United Kingdom. Further the FDFA (Federal Department of Foreign Affairs) noticed notable media coverage in Turkey, Lebanon, Qatar and Iran.6

This pseudo political and highly emotional debate in combination with the, mostly negative, foreign media coverage was a threat for Switzerland’s well-established image abroad. To counter the possible negative consequences, Presence Switzerland was faced with a huge challenge and had to act in a fast pace.

1.2 Swiss public diplomacy effort

The public diplomacy effort of Switzerland (Presence Switzerland) can be divided into two phases: First, measures during the referendum campaign and second, measures following the acceptance of the initiative. However, this paper will mainly focus on the first phase, since it can be seen as the “hot phase”, in which most of the international reaction posed a threat to the image of Switzerland abroad.

1.2.1 The actor

Presence Switzerland found itself in an integration process from 2007-2009 into the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. Therefore, PRS is a government agency. This is also reflected in their closeness to politicians and the Swiss federal council (highest decision making authority in Switzerland).7 PRS defines its task as follows:

“ Presence Switzerland supports the protection of Switzerland ’ s interests by using various public relations tools. Its tasks include transmitting general knowledge about Switzerland, the forging of understanding for Switzerland, as well as a portrayal of Switzerland ’ s diversity and attractiveness ” 8

Presence Switzerland does not explicit sees itself as public diplomacy agency, nor does the phrasing appear on their website or in their publications. When having a closer look at the decree, it seems that they define their main task with the phrase, “communication abroad”. The maintaining, or in their words, to take care of the Swiss image abroad, is thereby the main mode of action.9

Presence Switzerland, as part of the government, tries to target other societies in order to shape the country’s image. The foreign public’s image of Switzerland will eventually also influences the target country’s government and finally could also have an influence on bilateral relations with Switzerland. In this sense, the actor “Presence Switzerland” operates within the framework of a “Basic Cold War model”.10 During the minaret debate they used official governmental assets, targeted at a foreign audience, in order to assist their foreign policy.

1.2.2 Foreign Policy Aim

As noticed before, the policy aim was to prevent a negative impact on the image and on the interests of Switzerland. The argument was that other states would perceive Switzerland as a country without religious tolerance and even more, a country with an aversion to the Muslim population. This eventually could have an impact on the bilateral relations, especially with Arab countries, and thus could damage the economy.11

1.2.3 Target audience and the used message

It was quiet predictable, which countries Presence Switzerland (PRS) targeted. Since the main criticism (through the media) came from a few Muslim countries and the neighbouring states, they were the targeted countries as well. PRS targeted specifically, Germany, France, Italy, the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Further target countries were Turkey, Lebanon, Qatar and Iran. It was the aim to reach the broad society in those countries, which means, the media members, opinion leaders (political and religious), people from the business sector, the science field, from the cultural and sports scene and as well the young people.12

Although the aim was to prevent an emerging negative image, PRS’ strategy was not to defend or downgrade the SVP campaign. Also, they didn’t speak about the minaret initiative itself so much. The message spread in the targeted countries emphasized positive things. The strategy was twice folded: to counter negative with positive and to communicate in a transparent manner. The messages emphasized that Switzerland is a country, which allows freedom of opinion, which keeps alive the direct democracy system and which is multicultural, open and humanitarian. Further, PRS provided information about the Swiss political system and the electoral system.13

1.2.4 Tools and channels

It was already shown that PRS saw its main task in communication. Before and during the Minaret controversy PRS’ highest credo was a thorough communication conducted through the media. The embassies abroad were used as an instrument to get in touch with the leading media in the Islamic world. The information material was prepared in English, Arabic and Farsi. Furthermore, PRS tried to establish a dialogue with socio-political activists, religious leaders by using already existing networks such as the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and the Nyon Process.14


1 Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, FDFA, 2013, http://www.eda.admin.ch/etc/medialib/downloads/edazen/dfa/orgcha/prsdoc.Par.0038.File.tmp/Brief%20history _PRS.pdf

2 Swissworld, 2013, http://www.swissworld.org/en/politics/!

3 Matyassy&Flury, 2011.

4 Federal administration, 2013, http://www.admin.ch/ch/d/pore/vi/vis353t.html

5 Höhener, 2009.

6 Matyassy&Flury, 2011.!

7 Based on the authors contact with Presence Switzerland (PRS), including conversations with PRS’s deputy director Verena Weber on the 13.09.2013. Hereafter clarified as: Interview Weber, PRS’ deputy director, 2013.

8 Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, FDFA. 2013, http://www.fdfa.admin.ch/eda/en/home/dfa/orgcha/gensec/prs.html !

9 Federal administration, 2013, http://www.admin.ch/opc/de/classified-compilation/20082634/index.html

10 Gilboa, 2008.

11 Matyassy&Flury, 2011.!

12 Matyassy&Flury, 2011.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.!


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
540 KB
Catalog Number
100 (highest possible grade)
Swiss politics politics diplomacy Swiss public diplomacy Presence Switzerland Swiss public relations Minarett Initiative Präsenz Schweiz Shweizer Landeskommunikation public diplomacy public relations Politik Schweiz




Title: Switzerland's public diplomacy. The Minaret controversy and a determination of the status quo