Swiss vote to ban new minarets too close for comfort
(Photo: Poster to vote “yes” to minaret ban in a Swiss meadow, 13 Nov 2009/Dario Bianchi)
A threatening image dominates Switzerland’s streets in the form of a dark woman dressed in a Muslim niqab veil, looming over a Swiss flag covered with missile-like minarets with a call to vote “yes” in a referendum on Sunday to ban minarets on mosques here. The posters clearly seek to tap into the concerns of the country’s traditionally Christian majority about increased immigration from Muslim countries.
“I find the nature of these posters very provocative against the Islamic world. The presentation and the way the minarets are presented like rockets is unbelievable. Also the colours — with all the black — look very threatening,” says 34-year-old air traffic controller Judith Baumer. “I assume that it’s supposed to trigger strong emotions or fear in the population.”
(Photo: Vote “yes” posters in Zurich’s main train station, 26 Oct 2009/Arnd Wiegmann)
Polls suggest the referendum could be close-run. With only a slim majority of Swiss questioned expressing opposition or a tendency to oppose a ban, turnout and currently undecided voters could yet sway the vote towards behind the “‘yes” campaign.
“It’s fine to build minarets in a Muslim country, not in Switzerland. I’m strictly against that,” says unemployed electrical fitter Rolf Waechtler. “People from abroad are ok with me, but I’m in favour of them putting minarets directly there: abroad.”
The anti-minarets initiative was organised mainly by members the right-wing Federal Democratic Union (EDU) and Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which won the largest share of the vote at the last election on rising anti-foreigner sentiment in Switzerland spurred by increased immigration.
Under Swiss law citizens have the right to force referendums on any issue provided they collect enough signatures in support of their initiative. But the Swiss government and other parties — including the Conservative Democratic Party (BDP), which broke away from the SVP in 2008 — oppose a ban, warning it would violate the country’s constitution and stir religious tension.
(Photo: “Yes” posters in German, French and Italian at SVP meeting in Geneva, 3 Oct 2009/Valentin Flauraud)
The Swiss vote is just the latest example of mistrust between Muslim and Christian communities that has created tensions and fuelled support for far-right groups in other European countries as well.
It is all the more surprising because Switzerland’s Muslims, who make up around 4 percent of the 7.6 million-strong population and are mainly of European origin, are a low-profile minority. There are also just four minarets in the entire country.
Three attacks on one of these few mosques with minarets, in Geneva, this month could indicate the ban is already having an effect on race relations in the country.
The initiative has been slammed at home and abroad and a ban would damage Switzerland’s reputation as a neutral country that upholds freedoms of worship, speech and expression. It could lead to the radicalisation of some members of a Muslim community generally regarded as well integrated into Swiss society.
The U.N. Human Rights Committee and Amnesty International say a ban would contravene Switzerland’s international obligations to uphold human rights.
(Photo: Poster to vote “no” to the minaret ban by Geneva interfaith group, 21 Nov 2009/Denis Balibouse)
And the Swiss think tank economiesuisse warns it would damage business at a time when the country’s private banks, hit hard by the relaxation of Swiss bank secrecy, are stepping up attempts to attract more business from Muslim clients around the world with new Islamic banking products.
On Sunday, the world will see whether Switzerland’s voters use their model of direct democracy to defend the country’s long-cherished values of tolerance and freedom or instead choose to isolate their country’s biggest religious minority.