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Swiss minaret ban: Can Europe learn to trust its Muslim citizens?

Switzerland's ban on minarets is based on inflamed stereotypes that Islam is in conflict with Swiss values.

By Tariq Ramadan / December 1, 2009

Oxford, England

It wasn't meant to go this way. For months we were told that the efforts to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland were doomed.

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The polls suggested that around 34 percent of the Swiss population would vote for this shocking initiative. On Nov. 27, in a meeting organized in Lausanne, Switzerland, more than 800 students, professors, and citizens were convinced that the referendum would see the motion rejected, and so were focused instead on how to turn this silly initiative into a more positive future.

That confidence was shattered today, as 57 percent of the Swiss population did as the Union Démocratique du Centre (UDC) had urged them and approved a ban of the minarets – a worrying sign that this populist party may be closest to the people's fears and expectations.

For the first time since 1893 an initiative that singles out one community, with a clear discriminatory essence, has been approved in Switzerland.

Hopefully the ban will be rejected at the European level, but regardless, the results of the vote are no less alarming. What is happening in Switzerland, the land of my birth?

There are only four minarets in Switzerland, so why is it that it is there that this initiative has been launched? My country, like many in Europe, is facing a national reaction to the new visibility of European Muslims. The minarets are but a pretext – the UDC wanted first to launch a campaign against the traditional Islamic methods of slaughtering animals but was afraid of testing the sensitivity of Swiss Jews, and instead turned its sights on the minaret as a suitable symbol.

Every European country has its specific symbols or topics through which European Muslims are targeted. In France it is the head scarf or burqa; in Germany, mosques; in Britain, violence; cartoons in Denmark; homosexuality in the Netherlands – and so on.

It is important to look beyond these symbols and understand what is really happening in Europe in general and in Switzerland in particular: While European countries and citizens are going through a real and deep identity crisis, the new visibility of Muslims is problematic – and it is scary.

At the very moment Europeans find themselves asking, in a globalizing, migratory world, "What are our roots?," "Who are we?," "What will our future look like?," they see around them new citizens, new skin colors, new symbols to which they are unaccustomed.

Over the last two decades Islam has become connected to so many controversial debates – violence, extremism, freedom of speech, gender discrimination, and forced marriage, to name a few – it is difficult for ordinary citizens to embrace this new Muslim presence as a positive factor.