November 29, 2009 3:14 pm

Swiss vote to ban construction of minarets

Switzerland on Sunday voted to ban the construction of minarets, potentially exposing the small alpine country to a backlash from the Muslim world.

In a national referendum, more than 59 per cent of voters supported the call for a constitutional amendment to ban minarets, based on early projections. Support exceeded 65 per cent in many cantons, with only four of the country’s 26 cantons rejecting the move. Leaders of the ultraconservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the country’s biggest political grouping and initiator of the move, reacted with surprise, but jubilation. Pollsters had expected the referendum to be rejected, although many noted the margin had been narrowing in recent days.

Opponents of the initiative reacted with dismay, but tried to play down the potential political and economic repercussions, amid fears Switzerland could face the same sort of backlash experienced by Denmark after the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed.

“I wouldn’t exaggerate the result of this decision”, said Fulvio Pelli, chairman of the pro business Radical party.

Switzerland’s big multinational companies had warned of the dangers of a “yes” vote, amid fears that it could prompt actions against Swiss interests in Muslim countries or calls for a boycott of Swiss products.

“There is certainly a danger that some groups in certain countries might call for a boycott” , said Gerold Bührer, chairman of the Economiesuisse business federation.

SVP leaders remained unabashed. The party, which has come to dominate Swiss politics over the past 15 years through strident populist campaigns, has made an issue of the “Islamisation” of Swiss society.

Some party leaders described the anti-minaret referendum as the start of a drive to roll back Islam, suggesting moves to ban the Burka – the full length dress worn by devout Muslim women – and female circumcision could follow.

However, other SVP politicians took pains to distinguish between political Islam – the target of their campaign – and the Muslim faith.

The anti-minaret campaign was widely criticised as an attack on religious freedom and potentially racist. The campaign was opposed by Switzerland’s coalition government – which includes two SVP ministers – church groups and non governmental organisations.

Claude Lonchamp, a leading political commentator, said the strength of the “yes” vote, which went well beyond the SVP’s traditional base, showed the party had capitalised on widespread, if ill defined, fears of Islam as a political, and potentially violent, force.

Switzerland has about 300,000-400,000 Muslims in a population of about 7.5m. Most are from the Balkans and few are practising. Although integration is an issue in national politics, the country has suffered none of the serious problems – let alone violence – seen in some neighbouring European countries such as France or Germany.

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