The Future Muslim Population of Switzerland

20.06.2016 , in ((Politique)) , ((Pas des commentaires))

According to a popular belief, the number of Muslims living in Switzerland has strongly increased in the last years. Some populist groups even produced graphs predicting one million Muslims in a near future – as did the Egerkingen committee just before the popular vote on mass immigration in February 2014. Others extrapolated even further and went so far as to forecast a future Muslim majority.

In fact, immigration from “Muslim” countries [1] to Switzerland represents a small part of total immigration. In terms of net migration (immigration – emigration) the main Muslim countries of origin in 2015 were Kosovo (+2 353), Syria (+1 756), Afghanistan (+484), Turkey (+596), Somalia (+383), Tunisia (+342), and Morocco (+302). Overall, countries who are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation + Kosovo account for a net migration of +8 283 compared to a net migration from EU-28/EFTA countries of +47 867 and a total net immigration to Switzerland of +71 495. The share of “Muslim” immigrants is therefore only 11.6%, and this does not lead to a steep increase of the resident Muslim population in Switzerland.

Why is there such a discrepancy between the reality of immigration and popular beliefs? The explanations are twofold. First, there is a well-known tendency among the local population to overestimate the percentage of immigrants and most specifically Muslims. This tendency is well documented by a recent IPSOS-Mori survey: the average guess across the surveyed countries is 16%, while the actual proportion of Muslims in the respective countries amounts to 3%. For example, people in France think 31% of the population are Muslim, while the actual figure is only 8%. In Australia the average guess is nine times the actual proportion: people estimate it at 18%, while the actual share is only 2% [2].

Second and more specifically regarding Switzerland, immigration from Muslim countries has indeed rose rapidly in past decades: During the 80s and 90s, immigration from Turkey and Kosovo was a very significant component of immigration and at the beginning of the 90s it is estimated that some 50% of the net migration originated from a Muslim country. In more recent times however, immigration from Turkey and Kosovo decreased significantly and was not compensated by the increase of asylum immigration from other parts of the Muslim world such as Syria or Afghanistan. The Swiss population thus experienced a steep increase in the Muslim population between 1970 and 2000 – mostly due to immigration (1970 : 16 353, 1980 : 56 625, 1990 : 152 217, 2000 : 310 807 [3]), but it has not realized that the major part of this immigration is now over [4].

One could of course object that, besides immigration, a second factor contributing to population increase is natality – and it is true that the birth rates of some populations from Muslim countries remain high. Could Muslim populations, therefore, increase very fast within the next decades? The answer to this question is to be found in the population projection and it is NO. The forecasts of the PEW research center are currently the best estimations of future populations by religion world-wide. They are based on demographic projections that take into account the age structure, the birth rate differentials, and the immigration according to religious background. Regarding Switzerland, the most recent PEW forecast is 7.6% Muslims by 2050 compared to an estimated 4.9% today [5] – a share which is far from the fearful “future Muslim majority” and “Eurabia” discourse of some islamophobic groups [6].

In conclusion, one must remember that the above mentioned estimations of populations with a Muslim background give no indication of religious practices and cover a huge diversity. In any case, the real challenge is not the share of a given population in the overall population, but the way in which the beliefs or non-beliefs co-exist within a given society. Nevertheless, estimating numbers as best as we can, is necessary to dismantle ungrounded fears and political instrumentalization.

Etienne Piguet
Project Leader, nccr – on the move, University of Neuchatel


[1] Most countries have populations of mixed religion. I consider countries as “Muslim” if they are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation OIC. This does not necessarily mean that a majority of their population is Muslim. I do, however, not include Cameroon, Guyana, Surinam and Uganda as they have very small Muslim minorities (despite the fact that they are formally members of OIC). In contrast, I add Kosovo although it is not member of the OIC.
[2] Switzerland was not included in that survey.
[3] Including Swiss citizens. Source: “Rapport du Conseil fédéral sur la situation des musulmans en Suisse”, Bern, 2013, p. 19.
[4] The total Muslim population is currently difficult to estimate due to the – in this case a bit careless – cancelation of the 2010 Census by the Federal Council. It is estimated between 340 000 and 400 000.
[5] p. 50 in the 2015 Report. For 2014, the “Enquête sur la langue, la religion et la culture” (OFS, Bern, 2015) mentions 5% of Muslims among the whole population. Two variables not taken into account in the PEW forecasts could have an influence on that percentage: (1) an increase of immigration from Muslim countries through asylum (linked for example to the current political crisis in the Middle East) could increase the percentage, and (2) a faster than expected decrease in fecundity levels linked to cultural integration could decrease the percentage.
[6] See Carr, M. 2006. “You are now entering Eurabia”, Race & Class 48 (1):1-22.


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