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 De'mocratique 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.