Swiss minaret ban reflects European fear of Islam

The Swiss vote to ban minarets comes at a time when Muslim populations are growing and Europeans worry about losing traditional Christian culture.

By , Correspondent

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    Walter Wobmann, president of the committee "Yes for a ban of Minarets", looks at a campaign poster in Egerkingen, Switzerland, Sunday.
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The Swiss vote yesterday to ban the construction of minarets in their alpine country is rippling across Europe. The vote reflects a fear that some of the oldest Christian societies are becoming Islamicized, but is at odds with efforts to integrate the continent's roughly 20 million Muslims.

Churches and mainstream political parties urged the Swiss to turn down the proposal, brought by the rightist Swiss People's Party (SVP). But 57 percent of voters in Sunday's referendum defied expectations that they would allow a new kind of religious symbol – the tall, slender tower attached to a mosque – to increasingly punctuate Europe's skyline where steeples once reigned.

For those voters, says religion researcher Jean-François Mayer, minarets are a symbol of Islam and its potential rise in influence – an issue around which many different concerns can crystallize, not just in Switzerland but across Europe. Using a tool not available in other countries, the referendum, Swiss voters sent a clear message.

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"The vote is sending a strong signal about the concerns of average people regarding Islam; it will encourage people in other countries to develop strategies," says Dr. Mayer, head of Religioscope, a research institute in Fribourg, Switzerland. If other European countries held similar votes, he adds, he has "no doubt that the results would be similar."

Blow for democracy?

Although the Swiss Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the SVP and another small party had campaigned to insert a sentence banning the construction of minarets.

European leaders and academics decried the vote as a blow not only for Muslims, but for democracy. France's Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, said the decision amounted to "oppressing a religion," reported the Associated Press, while Dieter Oberndörfer of the University of Freiburg in Germany described the decision to the Monitor as "cataclysmal."

But others see a distinction between the freedom to practice one's religion and the increasing presence of Islam in the public sphere, against which they see Switzerland taking a noble stand.

"The Swiss are symbols of the struggle of Europeans against Islamization," says Filip Dewinter, leader of Cities Against Islamization, an umbrella group of representatives from at least seven countries.

While he says he has nothing against religious freedom, "that doesn't mean that you need to build enormous buildings with eccentric minarets like in Saudi Arabia or other Islamic countries," adds Mr. Dewinter, a Flemish separatist politician in Belgium. "Europe is a Christian-based society. We are used to church towers. Mosques do not belong to European culture. That's happening far too much already. We want to stop that."

Campaign based on fear

Critics say fear dominated the campaign in Switzerland, a country of 7 million that's home to more than 300,000 Muslims – many of whom came after the Balkan wars. They make up more than 4 percent of the population – comparable to the share of Muslims in Western Europe as a whole.

In Switzerland, there are four mosques with minarets, but the call to prayer is banned from being broadcast over loudspeakers. Few Muslims belong to religious groups, as is the case across much of Europe.

But the fact that Islam is Europe's fastest-growing religion, together with numerous projections that Muslim populations – already as high as 30 percent in cities such as Antwerp in the Netherlands – will rapidly expand in the coming decades, have many worried about the pace and scope of Islam's increasing presence.

Nadia Karmous, president of the Cultural Association for Muslim Women in Switzerland, says the SVP tapped those fears to win the referendum. Posters, for example, featured women shrouded in the niqab, the head-to-head veil that only shows their eyes, standing next to tall, black minarets, an image observers say sent the message that Islam is not compatible with Western values.

"This surprised us in a Switzerland with a tradition of hospitality and tolerance," says Ms. Karmous. "There is sadness and deep disappointment."

The Swiss vote, say experts, feeds off a kind of anti-Islamic rhetoric in a post-9/11 context. "On the whole, there is evidence that Islamophobia is on the increase," says Muhammad Anwar of the Center for Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick in England. "That creates a lot of fears among Muslims, who are seeing their situations being questioned as citizens of their countries."

A boost to anti-Muslim initiatives

The Swiss vote is but the latest backlash against Muslim immigration, which is taking different forms across Europe. In France, for example, the government has talked about abolishing the burqa, although studies show that only a few hundred women in France wear the head-to-toe garment. "The burqa is becoming a symbol," says Mayer.

In Austria, the southern province of Carinthia recently passed a law effectively banning the construction of visible mosques by requiring them to fit into the overall look of towns. In Cologne, Germany, protesters demonstrated against the building of a mosque they feared could overshadow the city's cathedral.

In such a context, the real damage brought by Sunday's vote, say some observers, is to distract Europeans from the measures needed to help Muslims integrate and it creates more fear on the part of Muslims.

"[Muslims] are forced to look inward instead of feeling like full citizens of their countries," says Professor Anwar of the University of Warwick. "This is not helping their integration.... People are here to stay. What we need in Europe is to educate people that everybody should be treated equally."

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