In a referendum called by general popular initiative on November 29, the Swiss electorate voted by 57.5 per cent for a constitutional ban on the building of minarets throughout the country. This deeply unsettling result has caused a ripple of tension in this usually tranquil region. The vote went against all expectations and against the wishes of all the major political parties including the referendum’s instigators, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP). This disturbing indication of a prejudice against Islamic symbolism sits oddly with Switzerland’s image as a leader in human rights advocacy and international mediation. The result has also been condemned by ministers in the European Union governments, by the Vatican, and by Islamic authorities around the world, many of whom have also advised calm. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, whose office is based in Geneva, has called the result discriminatory and divisive. Switzerland may also face action in the European Court of Human Rights; it currently chairs that court’s parent body, the Council of Europe.

The ban will not affect the four minarets already standing in Switzerland, and the vote has no connection with the facts of such Muslim presence as there is in the country. The population of about 7.6 million includes approximately 400,000 Muslims; almost all are Europeans or have strong European cultural connections. The 160 or so mosques in Switzerland are also said to be almost invisible. The ban, however, has nothing to do with forms of Islam or with whether minarets and domes are essential to Islamic devotional architecture; mosques without them exist all over the world. Instead the SVP campaign for the ban focussed on the burkha, on the Sharia law, and on the allegedly widespread oppression of women in Islamic cultures and countries. The main campaign poster showed black minarets standing together like rockets against the background of the Swiss flag. In front of the flag, a woman in a black burkha stared towards the viewer. The clear and inflammatory message was that Switzerland had been or was about to be taken over by Islam. Such a message would almost certainly resonate with other European electorates. A German tabloid says that if given the chance German voters would probably vote the same way as the Swiss. This victory for fear and demagoguery shows clearly the failure of mainstream European politicians to deal decisively with xenophobia, bigotry, and racism among their own populations.

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