How the Sikhs integrated in Switzerland

The first Sikhs to settle in Switzerland faced hardship because of their distinct appearance and traditions.

The first Sikhs to settle in Switzerland faced hardship because of their distinct appearance and traditions. A book published by one of their first Swiss supporters helps clear misconceptions about this community.   

The gurudwara – a place of worship for followers of Sikhism – in the town of Däniken in northern Switzerland looks completely out of place. It is in the middle of an industrial zone with the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant in the background. The yellow building with four onion-shaped turrets stands out just like the first Sikh immigrants to Switzerland did. Seventy-two-year-old Christoph Baumann, an expert on Indian religions and a regular visitor to the Däniken gurudwara, was one of the first Swiss people to welcome them.   

“I like Sikhism because nobody tried to convince me to convert. It is also a monotheistic religion and I belong to the Protestant church which is quite similar,” he told swissinfo.ch. He recently published a manual in German about the Sikh religionexternal link that addresses many of the concerns both Sikhs and others might have about the religion’s traditional practices...

...“The Sikhs faced all the difficulties normally experienced by new immigrants. In addition, their distinct appearance made it tough to for them to find work or obtain a room for worship,” says Baumann.  

They also ran into problems with the law due to some their religious traditions. In 1990, a court in Zurich upheld a fine issued by the police to a motorcycle-riding Sikh for not wearing a helmet (he was stopped for ignoring a red light). The turban-wearing man’s appeal to the country’s highest court against religious discrimination was dismissed on the grounds that the religion only required a head covering and not a turban per se.   

The Swiss police were also not happy about the ceremonial dagger (called kirpan) that some Sikh men carried on them, especially when it was worn under clothes. Sikh men have been detained in the past under the charge of carrying a concealed weapon. However, they are not technically considered weaponsexternal link under the law, as the blade is not symmetrical, there is no automatic switching mechanism and it is not a throwing knife. Baumann collaborated with Basel community police to resolve misunderstandings.

Well integrated  

Baumann estimates that about a thousand Sikhs now live in Switzerland. The numbers reached their peak of 3,000 in the 1990s but then over 2,000 of those eventually emigrated to Canada or other countries.   

According to Baumann, the Sikhs fit very well into Swiss society.   

“Like the Swiss, the Sikhs have a strong work ethic and generally work harder than some other migrant groups,” he says.   

Only a minority of Swiss Sikhs follow the religion’s traditions to the letter.   

“Out of 60 men in a gurudwara you will find only about 20 wearing turbans,” says Baumann...

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