IT ALL started as a minor planning row in the village of Wangen in the district of Olten, eastern Switzerland. When worshippers at the local mosque wanted to erect a six-metre minaret on its roof, neighbours objected, claiming it would spoil the view. But, on Sunday, the whole country will vote on the row in a referendum to ban minaret construction that mirrors disputes over the hijab in France and anti-Muslim protests in Britain, and will be a test of Switzerland’s commendably liberal attitude to the integration of its minorities.
The initiative, triggered by a petition of 114,900 signatures (100,000 are needed to call a referendum), has largely been driven by the country’s biggest political party, the hard-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP). It claims that the minaret is more a political than religious symbol, a “symbol for political Islamisation”, according to one of its MPs. And the party has fanned anti-Muslim sentiment with posters depicting a woman in a burka against the backdrop of a Swiss flag covered with missile-like black minarets, underscored by the word “Stop”. Authorities in Basle, Lausanne and Fribourg this week banned it from city billboards as “racist”.
The government and political establishment from left to right, churches, unions, and civil liberties groups have all united to oppose the measure as an attack on the freedom to worship. Thankfully, they should prove successful if opposition, currently at 53 per cent in the polls, holds up. The referendum has also concerned the business community, worried by the possibility of the sort of boycott that followed the Danish cartoon controversy. “The brand ‘Swiss’ must continue to represent values such as openness, pluralism and freedom of religion,” warned Hanspeter Rentsch, a senior manager at watch company Swatch.
Some 400,000 Muslims, mostly from Turkey and the Balkans, live in Switzerland (population: 7.5 million, one- fifth, foreigners). But surveys show that less than 15 per cent of Swiss Muslims actively practise their faith. Indeed, only four of the country’s roughly 150 mosques have minarets, while laws against sound pollution forbid mosques from using minarets for the call to prayer.
But, despite that reality, the very calling of the referedum shows how dangerously easy it is for demagogues to play the race card. And it highlights the potential inherent contradiction beween, on the one hand, pluralism and the protection of minorities, and, on the other, the democratic rule of the majority in a referendum-based political culture.