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Islam Takes Another Hit in Europe: Swiss Vote to Ban New Minarets

5 years ago
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First, it was head scarves. Then it was burqas. The latest target in Europe's growing anti-Muslim sentiment: minarets.

On Sunday
, Switzerland became the first country in Europe to vote to curb the religious practices of Muslims when a referendum banning the construction of minarets was backed by a solid majority. Minarets are the distinctive spires that sit atop mosques and which are used in most countries for calls to prayer.

No one saw it coming. The government, mainstream political parties, churches, main newspapers, the national president, the powerful business lobby and the Vatican all opposed the ban. As recently as two weeks ago, opinion polls showed 53 percent of respondents would reject the ban and just 37 percent would support it. But Sunday's vote showed a swing to 57.5 percent in favor (1.534 million people) and 42.5 percent against (1.135 million people), with 22 of the 26 cantons in support of the initiative. (Switzerland uses referenda for single-issue politics, meaning citizens have the last word on many important political decisions.)

The vote has huge political ramifications for three reasons. First, Switzerland has a long tradition of multicultural tolerance and inclusion. If bans like this can be enacted here, what does that portend for the rest of Europe, where fears of a parallel Muslim community run much higher?

Second, Switzerland's Muslim population is not nearly as active or visible as is the case in neighboring countries. Muslims make up about 6 percent of Switzerland's 7.5 million people, and many of them are refugees from the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Fewer than 13 percent practice their religion, and Swiss mosques do not broadcast the call to prayer outside their buildings. (There are only four minarets in the entire country.)

Finally, because the ban gained a majority of votes and passed in a majority of the cantons, it will be added to the Swiss Constitution. So this isn't just a law that can be easily overturned; it would need to be shown either unconstitutional or in violation of international human rights law.

Many are attributing the ban's surprise success to shrewd fear-mongering tactics by the far-right parties, which lobbied for its passage. Posters featured a woman wearing a burqa with the minarets drawn in as weapons on a Swiss flag. Supporters of the ban claimed that allowing further minarets in Switzerland would represent the growth of an ideology and a legal system -- Sharia law -- that are incompatible with Swiss democracy.

There's no question that the ban was championed by the right. But the measure had supporters from many different corners of Swiss society. Chief among its proponents were feminists who argued that minarets are nothing more than "male power symbols" and reminders of Islam's oppression of women.

Yesterday, the Vatican, Muslim leaders and many prominent center-left European politicians condemned the results of the referendum. They warned of its potential to further poison Europe's relationship with the Muslim world.

But everyone recognizes that this is not an isolated incident. We've talked before in this space about the ongoing antipathy toward head scarves and burqas in France. In Cologne, Germany, the cornerstones of a new mosque have just been laid after years of heated battles over its symbolic placement near one of the most famous cathedrals in the world. And of course there was the whole controversy that erupted several years ago after a Danish newspaper published a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed, igniting heated reaction in the Arab and Muslim world.

All of these issues in turn form part of an active and virulent debate over the future of European identity. The question is what place -- if any - Muslims will have within it. So far, things aren't looking very encouraging.

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