The incident in May 2018, which saw the man fined 150 Swiss francs (€132) plus 60 francs in administrative charges, came to light this week after the 22-year-old involved went public with his story.
The young man, named by Swiss media as Orhan E., said he used the Islamic phrase ‘Allahu akbar’, which literally means ‘God is [the] greatest’, to express his amazement after spotting a friend of his near Schaffhausen’s goods train depot.
While he was speaking in Turkish to that friend, he was approached by an off-duty police officer. The policewoman then fined him for causing a public nuisance because he had used the phrase Allahu akbar in a “loud and clear” manner.
Local police have since defended the fine, saying the officer acted appropriately.
“At the time, there was a possibility that people could have become afraid or shocked,” a media spokesperson for the force, Patrick Caprez, told local daily Schaffhauser Nachrichten. The phrase ‘Allahu akbar’ has often been used by terrorists before carrying out attacks.
Schaffhausen security chief Romeo Bettini also backed the force’s decision to fine the man.
Bettini noted the manner in which the phrase had been spoken was key in the 2018 incident and added police officers would have acted in the same way if someone had run around a local square swearing loudly.
“It is completely wrong to say this phrase [Allahu akbar] is forbidden in Schaffhausen,” he said.
He added police always used their judgement as to what constituted a nuisance.
But Orhan E. denied he “shouted” the phrase, as asserted by police in their original report.
“I didn’t want any problems and I spent two minutes trying to explain why I had said what I did,” he told Schaffhauser Nachrichten.
Speaking to Swiss news site 20 Minuten, the man said: “We use ‘Allahu akbar” as a greeting and in almost every second sentence. When the weather is good, for example. We use it when we want to say we think something is positive.”
But the young man said his attempted explanation at the time hadn’t helped. The officer had called for armed back-up and the 22-year-old was “manhandled” while police demanded that he apologize.
He added he was threatened with jail if he didn’t pay the fine.
“I was born here [in Switzerland] and have never experienced anything like this. We live in a free country with religious freedom. Arbitrary police behaviour is not acceptable,” he said of the incident.
The man paid the fine promptly because he was afraid of jail time, he said.
He also told the Schaffhauser Nachrichten he had now come forward because he had heard of another similar incident in December where a border guard allegedly punched a young man who had said “Allahu akbar”.
“Just because terrorists misuse these two words doesn’t mean I have bad intentions when I say them,” he said.
Amir Dziri, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Fribourg, said he believed it was unusual to use the phrase Allahu akbar – often used in Islamic liturgy – as a greeting, but noted this could be youth slang.
The professor said police had acted appropriately but also expressed his sympathy for the young man.
“If he really used the phrase in a harmless context then one can understand that he felt discriminated against,” he said.
“If this phrase was criminalized across the board it would be impinge on religious freedom,” Dziri said.
Zurich anti-racism group People-of-Color has now launched a criminal complaint against police in Schaffhausen.