Swiss vote to halt 'Islamisation' by ban on minarets


SWISS POPULIST parties were celebrating last night after voters backed their initiative to halt the “Islamisation” of the country by banning minarets on new mosques.

After the surprise referendum result – exit polls showed 57 per cent in favour of the ban – the Swiss government sprang into damage limitation mode.

It rushed out a statement in Arabic as well as Switzerland’s four official languages, saying that it respected but “regretted” the decision. New minarets would not be permitted in future, the statement said, but the four existing minarets, out of the country’s 150 mosques, would remain.

“It will also be possible to continue to construct mosques,” said the statement. “Muslims in Switzerland are able to practise their religion alone or in community with others and live according to their beliefs, just as before.”

With a turnout of 53 per cent, high by Swiss referendum standards, the ban received widespread support around the country; just 37 per cent of voters rejected the ban, concentrated in eastern, French-speaking regions including Geneva and Basel.

The vote is a triumph for the populist extreme-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) following several failed referendums in recent years on controversial immigration issues.

“The Islamic religion is intolerant, but we do not want to limit freedom of religion, we want to outlaw a political symbol,” said SVP politician Ulrich Schlüer, head of the anti-minaret campaign. “Forced marriages and other things like cemeteries separating the pure and impure, those are things we don’t have in Switzerland and don’t want.”

The SVP stirred up anti-Islamic sentiment in Switzerland with campaign posters showing women in black burkhas and a Swiss flag dotted with minarets with a resemblance to missiles.

The country’s Muslim community has grown in the last decade to about 350,000, or 4.5 per cent of the population, due to migration from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. The vast majority are viewed as moderates and only 13 per cent are practising.

“This result puts a minority under pressure and is unworthy of Swiss traditions and history,” said Farhad Afshar, president of the Co-ordination of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland, to the Tagesanzeiger newspaper. “Muslims who have integrated into Swiss life, who live peacefully and practise their religion will feel less accepted after this.”

Ahead of the vote, the Swiss government warned that voting for the ban would damage Switzerland’s image abroad. Justice minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf admitted yesterday that the government had underestimated the depth of public resentment and fear of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies “which reject our national traditions and which could disregard our legal order”.

She said the the controversial anti-minaret campaign was a “proxy war” that would do nothing to counteract extremism.

“Supporter say they are against minarets,” she said, “but they want to fight what they consider creeping Islamisation and sharia law.”

The centre-right Christian Democratic Party warned that implementing a ban on minarets would leave Switzerland open to a product boycott or protests similar to those after the Danish Muhammad caricatures.

Dr Reinhard Schulze, an Islamic expert at Bern University, told national television the vote was a “turning point” in the treatment of religious faith in Switzerland.

“The next thing is obviously to look at how this plays with international law,” he said.

After yesterday’s vote, the minaret battle enters a new round: many leading legal experts say the proposed ban contradicts Swiss law and international law.

The ban may also infringe the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Switzerland is a signatory.

Challenges to the ban are also likely at the European Court for Human Rights.