WANGEN BEI OLTEN, Switzerland — Bertram Decker’s second-floor
office in Nestlé’s big food plant here looks out over the town’s only
minaret, a wooden turret topped with a gilt star and crescent.
The minaret, atop a Turkish cultural association, is one of only
four in all of Switzerland,
and it has a special place in the country’s recent history. It touched
off a local scrap that in November led more than 57 percent of Swiss voters to approve a call
for a constitutional amendment to ban minarets.
Here in Wangen, 61 percent approved the measure, which is a little
curious, since Mr. Decker’s factory produces, among other things,
packages of feuilleté, or puff pastry, that adhere to Islam’s ritual
Last year, the factory’s assembly lines churned out 100 million
packages of pastry, up from 80 million a decade ago. Though halal
products represent at most 3 percent of the total, Mr. Decker said, “We
see now that it’s growing.”
On a wall near the entrance, he points to a certificate from the
Grand Mosque in Paris certifying the factory as halal, or free of impure
products like alcohol or pork. “The original certification was for two
years,” said Mr. Decker, 41, a German who was brought in 18 months ago
to manage the plant, part of the Swiss multinational Nestlé. “We just
got an extension until 2012.”
As incomes rise in the Islamic world and Muslims migrate increasingly
to Europe and the United States, Wangen’s halal production is part of a
thrust by Nestlé to carve a niche in the global market for halal
products, including coffee, baked goods, breakfast cereals and baby
food. Halal products now account for $5 billion of Nestlé’s global
But while Switzerland benefits from factories like this one selling
its products to Muslim customers in many countries, it appears the Swiss
are adamantly opposed to the construction of more minarets like the one
down the street.
In some ways, Wangen wears this contradiction on its sleeve. When
the Turkish club decided in 2006 to erect the minaret atop its
clubhouse, local residents took the association to court to prevent
construction, arguing that the minaret violated building codes. The case
went to Switzerland’s highest court, which approved construction,
though not because the minaret was a form of religious expression. “The
court ruled on conformity to the building codes,” said Beat Frey, 50, a
regional court judge who is also Wangen’s part-time mayor. “Not on
freedom of religion.”
The decision was seized upon by conservative parties, above all the
Swiss People’s Party of Christoph Blocher, a right-wing
industrialist-turned-politician, who demanded a referendum on the future
construction of minarets. Of course, all politics is local, and not
just in Massachusetts. The vote in tiny Wangen, population 4,950, many
local people said, was not the expression of intolerance it might have
“There were many reasons, not above all the Muslims among us,” said
Mr. Frey, who himself voted in favor of minarets. “Yes, there was fear
of political Islam, but people also wanted to send a message to the
federal government in Bern,” whose opposition to the amendment was
viewed as interference in local affairs.
“There was also fear of the unknown,” he said, adding that about 18
percent of the town’s population is foreign, though the largest group
among them are native Germans from nearby.
Down at the Turkish cultural association, Mustafa Karahan, 50,
sometimes feels under siege. “The problem is, people don’t know us,” he
said over coffee. “If they did, there wouldn’t have been the
In 2006, when the club was considering construction of a minaret,
members organized an open house, and more than 500 people came. “When we
dedicated the minaret, the local Protestant pastor spoke and several
government officials came,” said Mr. Karahan, a teacher who migrated to
Switzerland in 1980 and works in a machine shop.
But the controversy over the minarets provoked a backlash. As the
date for the vote approached, stones were thrown at the clubhouse
windows and a bag of pork products was hung on the door. Parking for
club members along the nearby railroad was suddenly made off limits by
railway officials (and remains so).
“They played politics with us, particularly regarding the minaret,
to gain votes,” Mr. Karahan said. “They have damaged Switzerland’s
Mustafa Bakci, 27, a chemist with a Swiss pharmaceuticals company,
said the club was open to all nationalities, not just Turks. “Libyans,
Saudis — it’s open for everyone,” said Mr. Bakci, who was born in
Switzerland. “From A to Z.”
Many foreigners work in the Nestlé plant and at the town’s other big
employer, Coop, a Wal-Mart-like retailer. “My sister-in-law works for
Nestlé,” Mr. Bakci said.
Walter Leisi, 64, remembers well when in 1962 his father, a baker
from Basel, decided to build a factory in Wangen to produce his packaged
puff pastry, which had been such a hit at home. “We had three
nationalities back then,” he said, recalling the starting work force of
about 70 people. “Swiss, Italians and Spaniards.”
In 1972 the factory passed into Nestlé’s hands, but the younger Mr.
Leisi, who also voted against the minaret ban, managed it until last
year. Now there are 400 employees, about two-thirds non-Swiss. “Many
Swiss think it’s not necessary for them to work nights,” he said.
Signs on factory walls are in numerous languages, including
Albanian, Serbian, Italian and Turkish. During the wars in the former
Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Mr. Leisi said, “I had a bad feeling; would
there be knifings here? Down there they were killing each other, yet
here we never had a problem.”
Most of the factory’s halal products are exported to France, which
has Europe’s largest Muslim population. To meet growing demand, the
factory runs three eight-hour shifts a day, Mr. Decker said, sometimes
How does Mr. Leisi explain the resistance to minarets in a town that
lives in part by selling food to Muslims?
“The problem is you had a certain category of extremist on one side,
and another on the other side,” he said, shaking his head.
Gesturing over his shoulder toward the Turkish club, he added, “One
of the reasons, of course, was that little minaret over there.”