Swiss Vote to Ban New Minarets

Swiss Vote to Ban New Minarets

By | 2009-11-29T15:52:00+00:00 November 29th, 2009|News|0 Comments

Switzerland’s political right on Sunday scored a surprising victory in a referendum on banning construction of minarets, denting the nation’s cherished image as a bastion of tolerance and threatening to set it at odds with international law and the Muslim world.

The Swiss Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the rightist Swiss People’s Party, or S.V.P., and a small religious party proposed inserting a single sentence banning the construction of minarets, the towers that typically stand adjacent to mosques and serve to issue the Muslim call to prayer.

Pre-referendum polls had indicated a comfortable, if slowly shrinking, majority against the proposal, but official results Sunday showed that the S.V.P. and its allies had won 57 percent of the vote. The result came after a controversial campaign that played aggressively on the same fears of Muslim immigration and the spread of Islamic values that already resonate in other European countries.

"That Switzerland, a country with a long tradition of religious tolerance and the provision of refuge to the persecuted, should have accepted such a grotesquely discriminatory proposal is shocking indeed," David Diaz-Jogeix, Amnesty International’s deputy program director for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement.

The result represents a deep embarrassment for the government, which had strongly opposed the motion, and leaves it with a complex political and legal tangle. With the vote Sunday, the ban on minaret construction automatically becomes part of the Constitution, said Lukas Goldber, an analyst at gfs.bern, a political and social research institute.

The Swiss cabinet, or Federal Council, issued a statement that it "respects this decision. Consequently, the construction of new minarets in Switzerland is no longer permitted."

But as a result, the government is now bound to draw up a supporting law, a process that could last for years, Mr. Goldber said. Human rights groups say the vote also risks putting Switzerland in breach of international conventions on human rights to which it is a signatory.

It also ensures a prolonged and intense debate on sensitive issues of Muslim immigration and integration that Switzerland’s political leaders have carefully avoided in recent years, Mr. Goldber said.

That will be an uncomfortable prospect after months of heated debate in the run-up to the referendum and a campaign by the S.V.P. that Justice Minster Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf described as "a kind of proxy war" and that human rights groups condemned as racist and inflammatory.

Campaign posters depicting a Swiss flag sprouting black, missile-shaped minarets alongside a woman shrouded in a burka, the head-to-toe veil worn in conservative Islamic communities, starkly illustrated the S.V.P.’s determination to go beyond the issue of minarets and play on deep-rooted fears that Muslim immigration would lead to an erosion of Swiss values and traditions.

In a recent televised debate, Ulrich Schlüer, an S.V.P. member of Parliament, said minarets were a symbol of "the political will to take power" and establish Sharia law. Switzerland, he said, already suffers from thousands of forced marriages and "we have a growing number of young Muslim women in Switzerland forced to endure genital mutilation."

Such debate prompted the Swiss government to mount a vigorous public relations campaign overseas to try to avoid a backlash in Islamic countries — like the one Denmark faced after publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad — and damage to lucrative commercial and banking ties with wealthy Muslims.

Still, the campaign came as a rude shock to Switzerland’s estimated 400,000 Muslims, about 6 percent of the population, whose leaders have been careful to avoid attracting little public attention, said Youssef Ibram, an imam at Geneva’s main mosque and Islamic Cultural Foundation.

Of 150 mosques or prayer rooms in Switzerland, only 4 have minarets and only 2 more minarets are planned. None conduct the call to prayer.

Close to 90 percent of Muslims in Switzerland are from Kosovo and Turkey and do not adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with conservative Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, said Manon Schick, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International in Switzerland.

Muslim leaders have tried to keep out of the spotlight and to avoid internationalizing the issue, shunning interviews with most news media from Muslim countries, according to Mr. Ibram.

Still, the campaign was accompanied by sporadic shows of hostility. In two separate incidents last week, vandals damaged Geneva’s main mosque by throwing stones and a pot of paint. On another occasion, Mr. Ibram said, a van pulled up outside the mosque early in the morning, loudly blaring a recording of the call to prayers through loudspeakers.

In an interview before the referendum, Mr. Ibram said that whatever the outcome of the vote, Muslims would lose out from a campaign that had played on fears of Islam and exposed deep-seated opposition to their community among many Swiss.