In a referendum on November 29 the Swiss voters approved a ban on the construction of new minarets on mosques. Under Switzerland's system of direct rule, the referendum is binding. Switzerland's 400,000 or so Muslims, most of whom come from Kosovo and Turkey, are legally barred from building minarets as of now.
An anti-immigrant, right-wing People's Party - the Union Democratique du Centre (UDC) - had launched the initiative for referendum, which passed with more than 57 percent of the vote. The outcome says a lot about how Western Europeans feel about the growing number of Muslim immigrants, who live as second-class citizens for all practical purposes. To borrow a phrase from Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Swiss Muslim scholar, the Swiss majority are sending a clear message to their Muslim fellow citizens: we do not trust you. (Ironically the UDC has in the past demanded Tariq Ramadan's citizenship be revoked because he was defending Islamic values too openly.)
It's telling that only four of Switzerland's 150 mosques have minarets, and none are used for the call to prayer because of strict noise-pollution rules. Hence, it is only a tiny fraction of the Swiss population which regularly encounters the sight of a mosque minaret. So what the real motives were behind the most dramatic move any nation has made to limit the visibility of Islam?
The campaign posters as well as those who have promoted this ban, indicate that Europe is in the throes of an Islamophobic trend gathering pace. Posters featured a woman wearing a burka with the minarets drawn as weapons on a colonized Swiss flag. The claim was made that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with Swiss values. Not surprisingly, anti-minaret agitators pointedly referred to a poet once quoted by Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan: "The mosques are our barracks - the minarets our bayonets." Mr Erdogan made the allusion long before he took national power, and it landed him in jail.
The niqab (scarf) and the minaret issues have been regularly used to stoke the flames of hatred and fear against Muslims throughout Europe in recent times. Earlier last month, France considered whether to bar Muslim women from wearing full-face veils, sparking a heated debate in which one French politician described burqas, the head-to-toe veils worn by some very devout Muslim women, as "walking coffins." The government issued a recommendation against wearing burqas, but stopped short of an outright ban.
Tellingly, the Swiss referendum coincides with the rise of far-right parties across Europe. According to John Esposito, Professor of religion, international affairs and Islamic at the Georgetown University, the stunning Swiss vote was really not all that surprising, considering the growing power of Islamophobia. In both Europe and America right-wing politicians, political commentators, media personalities, and religious leaders continue to feed a growing suspicion of mainstream Muslims by fueling a fear that Islam is a threat.
In last June's European elections, the British National Party got its first two seats in the European Parliament. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders' Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom, PVV) grabbed the second place in the Netherlands' Euro poll. Around Europe a ragbag of extremist parties, united by a vehement nationalism that singles out minority groups as a growing threat, scored in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia.
As Tariq Ramadan said the political parties, in Europe as in Switzerland have become cowed, and shy from any courageous policies towards religious and cultural pluralism. It is as if the populists set the tone and the rest follow.
Already right-wingers in Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands have called for similar measures, and others are likely to be encouraged by the success of the Swiss People's Party.
Dutch deputy Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom has suggested that they will be following the example of their Swiss compatriots and pursuing a ban on mosque minarets in the Netherlands.
Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the radical-right Austrian Freedom Party, and Marine Le Pen, vice-president of France's National Front, have also welcomed the Swiss result which points to the possibility of religious and political extremism spreading further in Europe.
And the Swiss vote will certainly give heart to politicians in Italy who are resisting mosques in frankly nativist terms. They include Roberto Maroni, Italy's interior minister, who is a senior figure in the anti-immigrant Northern League. Its leaders hailed the Swiss result and called for a similar ballot in Italy. Anti-Muslim feeling is strong in many Italian cities, such as Genoa where critics of a mosque project held a candle-lit protest on December 1st.
Walter Wobman, leader of the Swiss People's Party that promoted the referendum, said the group will now fight to ban the burqa as well as to institute a law against forced marriage. It may be pointed out that the People's Party first wanted to launch a campaign against the traditional Islamic methods of slaughtering animals but was afraid of testing the sensitivity of Swiss Jews.
To quote Esposito again, the far right persistently refuses to face a 21st century reality: to acknowledge and accept the fact that many Muslims are integrated citizens and that Islam is now a European religion, and, in fact, the second largest religion in many European countries.
The seven-million strong American Muslim community has received the ban on Minarets in Switzerland with alarm and dismay. The referendum is seen as part of a recent disturbing trend in Europe to restrict the religious freedom and self-expression of religious and ethnic minorities, notably of Muslims.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) urged President Obama to repudiate the decision of Swiss voters to deny Muslims in that nation the same religious rights granted to citizens of other faiths. "Our nation's silence on this flagrant denial of religious freedom would send a very negative message throughout the Muslim world, which must improve its own record on religious rights."
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