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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.

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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.

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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."