Muslim group aims to reverse Swiss minaret ban

November 30, 2010

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(Photo: A referendum campaign poster supporting the minaret ban, in Zurich October 26, 2009/Arnd Wiegmann)

A Swiss Islamic group has said it was launching a popular initiative to reverse a ban on building new minarets in the Alpine state, saying voters would decide differently if the matter came up for referendum again. Last year, 57.5 percent of Swiss voters approved a ban on the construction of new minarets, drawing international condemnation. The government had rejected the initiative as violating the constitution.

The plan to reverse the minaret ban comes a day after a majority of Swiss voted to back expulsion of foreigners convicted of serious crimes, the latest sign of growing hostility to immigration.

The text of the proposed initiative will state that the ban on building minarets is to be stricken from the constitution, the Central Islamic Council of Switzerland said on Monday. “Today we can clearly say that accepting the ban has brought neither the voters nor this country any profit,” said Nicolas Blancho, president of the group. “This (new referendum) will also show that we respect democracy and stick to local law.”

ch 2The Berne-based Council says it has 1,700 members. In May the Federal Migration Bureau excluded it from an inter-cultural dialogue, saying it first needed to condemn the notion of stoning of women as a punishment.The Swiss-born Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan called him “a marginal figure in the Muslim landscape.” About 350,000 Muslims live in Switzerland, which has a population of 7.7 million.

(Photo: Protesters hold banners reading ‘Islam’ and ‘We are Muslims not Hitler’ during a rally against the ban on new minarets in Switzerland in Bern December 12, 2009/Ruben Sprich)

When asked why voters would decide differently should the question of minarets come up again for referendum, Oscar Bergamin, an advisor to the group, answered: “People today are much better able to differentiate. They’re better informed and have time to become still better informed in coming years.”

Both the expulsion and the minarets initiative were put forward by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has mined increasing fear about immigration in recent years to become the country’s biggest political movement.  Referendums are common in Switzerland and have been held on issues ranging from health insurance to smoking bans.

The proposed text will be presented to the federal chancellery in January, the group said. The initiators will then have 18 months to collect 100,000 valid signatures. Should they succeed in doing so the matter can then come up for national referendum.

The furor over Swiss votes curbing the rights of Muslims and foreigners should not put off governments testing the usefulness of referendums which can strengthen social cohesion and consensus, proponents say.

Switzerland caught the world’s attention again on Sunday when it voted for the automatic expulsion of foreigners who have committed crimes, sparking violent protests a year after a referendum banned the building of new minarets. Both initiatives, driven by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), could fall foul of European anti-discrimination law, prompting criticism that populist campaigns are hijacking referendums and threatening the country’s reputation.

ch 3They also coincide with efforts by the European Union to introduce citizens’ initiatives next year amid widespread public anxiety over immigration.

(Photo: Swiss Muslims pray in front of the house of parliament during a demonstration in Berne, February 11, 2006/Sebastian Derungs)

“We must protect direct democracy from the tyranny of the majority,” said Social Democrat Andreas Gross, who opposed both initiatives and is campaigning to prevent future Swiss votes on plans which could infringe human rights or international law. Read the full analysis by Emma Thomasson here.

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