Swiss minaret vote and vague fears about Islam

General concern about creeping Islamic power, rather than a critical national problem with mosques, appears to have produced the Swiss minaret vote banning construction of the towers.

Europe and its Muslim residents have enough problems with each other that Europe doesn't need to manufacture new ones. Yet that's what the Swiss have done by voting in a referendum Sunday to ban the building of new minarets at Islamic mosques.

Not that tensions don't exist. But unlike Spain and Britain, Switzerland hasn't been bombed by Islamic terrorists. Unlike France, it hasn't watched disadvantaged immigrant neighborhoods, home to many Muslims, explode in violent riots. Unlike Denmark, it hasn't sparked global protests over "Muhammad cartoons" published in a newspaper or, as with the Netherlands, lost a famous and outspoken filmmaker to a gruesome murder carried out by a Muslim extremist.

Switzerland has had a relatively peaceful coexistence with its roughly 400,000 Muslims – many of them Bosnians, Kosovo Albanians, and Turks. They worship almost invisibly in about 200 mosques, only four of which have minarets. Burqas are rarely seen on the streets. No one has seriously moved to set up sharia law.

And yet what started as a local concern about a mosque and minaret was whipped into a national campaign by right-wing and ultraconservative parties. Following the script of fear-mongering hyperbole, they warned against the Islamization of Switzerland (Muslims make up about 4 percent of the population), against burqas and sharia, and against Islamic power and extremism.

A minaret ban couldn't possibly address those issues – hyperbolic or not. Indeed, the ban may well increase alienation between Muslims and non-Muslims. That could further enhance the political advantage of the parties that pushed the referendum, which was backed by 58 percent of the voting public.

So, the Swiss have just approved a constitutional change that won't do anything to solve its nonexistent problem of runaway Islamic extremism.

In that nonsensical statement lies this little country's big challenge. Swiss voters appear to have been caught up in the general European fear – some real, some imagined, and some manufactured – of Islamic extremism and culture clash. What makes this particularly tough for the Swiss government, which opposed the ban, is how to tackle a vague fear.

The Swiss minister of justice said that the ban would likely be struck down in court because it's incompatible with the Swiss Constitution and international human rights law. Illegal or not, it certainly steps on the idea of religious freedom and looks like discrimination.

Still, even if the ban, which is effective immediately, were struck down, how to root out that vague fear expressed in the vote?

Perhaps the answer lies less with the government, and more with individuals. In a response befitting one of the world's major religions, the imam of Switzerland's biggest mosque cautioned against a Muslim backlash.

"The Muslim world must respect, without accepting the decision. But it must respect the Swiss decision. Otherwise, we would be the first victims," Youssef Ibram, imam at the Geneva mosque, told Agence France-Press.

It is a calm response that can't be repeated enough – in this and many other cases of religious and cultural turmoil around the world.

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