Archive for November, 2009

Swiss minarets

November 29, 2009

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GENEVA  — The campaign posters are inflammatory: Minarets rising like missiles from the national flag.

A proposal championed by right-wing parties to ban minarets in Switzerland goes to a nationwide vote on Sunday in a referendum that has set off an emotional debate about national identity and stirred fears of boycotts and violent reactions from Muslim countries.

With tensions running high, the Geneva Mosque was vandalized Thursday by unidentified individuals who threw a pot of pink paint at the building’s entrance.

It was the third incident against the mosque this month: earlier, a vehicle with a loudspeaker drove through the area imitating a muezzin’s call to prayer, and vandals threw cobble stones at the building, damaging a mosaic.

Business leaders say a minaret ban would be disastrous for the Swiss economy because it could drive away wealthy Muslims who bank in Switzerland, buy the country’s luxury goods, and frequent its resorts.

The vote taps into anxieties about Muslims that have been rippling through Europe in recent years, ranging from French fears of women in body veils to Dutch alarm over the murder by a Muslim fanatic of a filmmaker who made a documentary that criticized Islam.

Polls indicate growing support for the proposal submitted by the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party, but it was doubtful it will gain enough momentum to pass. Muslims in Switzerland have kept a low profile, refraining from a counter-campaign.

“Switzerland’s good reputation as an open, tolerant and secure country may be lost and this would bring a blow to tourism,” said Swiss Hotel Association spokesman Thomas Allemann.

The nationalist Swiss People’s Party has led several campaigns against foreigners, including a proposal to kick out entire families of foreigners if one of their children breaks a law and a bid to subject citizenship applications to a popular vote.

The party’s controversial posters have shown three white sheep kicking out a black sheep and a swarm of brown hands grabbing Swiss passports from a box.

The current campaign posters showing missile-like minarets atop the national flag and a fully veiled woman have drawn anger of local officials and rights defenders.

The cities of Basel, Lausanne and Fribourg banned the billboards, saying they painted a “racist, disrespectful and dangerous image” of Islam.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee called the posters discriminatory and said Switzerland would violate international law if it bans minarets.

The Swiss People’s Party joined forces with the fringe Federal Democratic Union in the campaign. They say they are acting to fight the spread of political Islam, arguing the minaret represents a bid for power and is not just a religious symbol.

The four minarets already attached to mosques in the country would remain even if the referendum passes. Minarets are typically built next to mosques for religious leaders to call the faithful to prayer, but they are not used for that in Switzerland.

Construction of traditional mosques and minarets in European countries has rarely been trouble-free: projects in Sweden, France, Italy, Austria, Greece, Germany and Slovenia have met protests but have rarely been blocked.

In Cologne, Germany, plans to expand the city’s Ditib Mosque and complete it with a dome and two 177-foot-tall minarets have triggered an outcry from right-wing groups and the city’s Roman Catholic archbishop.

People’s Party lawmaker Walter Wobmann said minarets are part of Muslims’ strategy to make Switzerland Islamic. He said he feared Shariah law, which would create “parallel societies” where honor killings, forced marriages and even stoning are practiced.

Organizers collected more than the 100,000 signatures required for any Swiss citizen to put a constitutional initiative to a nationwide vote.

The government has urged voters to reject the initiative, saying it would violate religious freedom. Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has warned it would lead to a security risk for Switzerland; other members of the multiparty government have spoken out against the proposal.

Between 350,000 and 400,000 of Switzerland’s 7.5 million people are Muslims. Many are from families who came to Switzerland as refugees from former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

Less than 13 percent of the Muslims living in the Alpine nation are practicing and most are well integrated, said Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf. She said initiative would “endanger religious peace in our country.”

A survey by the respected polling institute gfs.bern last week indicated that 53 percent of voters reject the initiative, although support has grown by 3 percentage points to 37 percent since last month. Typically in Switzerland the margins on such votes narrows as balloting nears. Ten percent of the 1,213 people polled were undecided. The survey had an error margin of 2.9 percent.

“The problem is not so much the minarets, but rather what they represent,” said Madeleine Trincat, a retiree from Geneva. “After the minarets, the muezzins will come, then they’ll ask us to wear veils and so on.”

Carlo Adler, the director of a luxury jewelry shop in Geneva, called the initiative xenophobic.

“I don’t see why they should be banned,” he said about minarets. “We might as well take off the spires from churches.”

The Swiss business organization economiesuisse said it fears a minaret ban would harm Switzerland’s image in the Islamic world. The exporting nation sold goods of around 14.5 billion Swiss francs (about $14 billion) to Muslim countries last year, according to economiesuisse.

Peter Spuhler, the head of Swiss Stadler Rail Group, a train and tramway exporting company with markets in Muslim countries, said, “reactions can be very emotional and fierce” if the initiative is accepted.

“This can lead to boycotts,” he told weekly SonntagsZeitung.

Switzerland votes on minaret ban

By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Berne, Switzerland
Swiss voters are going to the polls to decide on a proposal to ban the building of minarets in their country.

The proposal is backed by the Swiss People’s Party, the largest party in parliament, and by Christian groups.

They say minarets would be the first sign of the Islamisation of Switzerland.

The Swiss government is urging voters to reject a ban. There are 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland, and just four minarets across the country.

Islam is the most widespread religion after Christianity, but it remains relatively hidden.

There are unofficial Muslim prayer rooms, and planning for new minarets is almost always refused.

The proposal is for a one-line addition to the Swiss constitution, stating that the construction of minarets is forbidden.

Supporters of a ban claim allowing minarets would represent the growth of an ideology and a legal system – Sharia law – which are incompatible with Swiss democracy.

I have a real problem with Islam, with the Islamic law, with the political and legal aspect of this religion
Oskar Freysinger Swiss member of parliament

Opinion polls ahead of the vote are close, with signs that a small majority would reject the ban.

That would be a relief to the Swiss government which fears banning minarets would cause unrest among the Muslim community, and damage Switzerland’s relations with Islamic countries.

Amnesty International has warned that the ban would violate Switzerland’s obligations to freedom of religious expression.

Swiss Muslim Elham Manea points to the recent construction of Sikh temples and Serbian Orthodox churches and says a ban just on minarets is discriminatory.

“If you are telling me that we are going to ban all religious symbols from all religious buildings, I would not have a problem with that.

“But if you are just telling me that we are going to target only the Muslims, not the Christians, not the Jews, not the Sikhs, only the Muslims, then I have a problem with it because it is discrimination.”

Muslim respect

Most of Switzerland’s Muslims come from former Yugoslavia, and there is no history of Islamic extremism, but supporters of a ban say minarets are far more than religious architecture.

They claim allowing them would be a sign that Islamic law is accepted in Switzerland.

Member of parliament Oskar Freysinger rejects the charge of discrimination.

“The Muslims as normal human beings are worth my respect – it is not a problem.

“I have a real problem with Islam, with the Islamic law, with the political and legal aspect of this religion.”

In recent years many countries in Europe have been debating their relationship with Islam, and how best to integrate their Muslim populations.

France focused on the headscarf; in Germany there was controversy over plans to build one of Europe’s largest mosques in Cologne.

Thank You God, that evil is prevented!


Swiss voters back ban on minarets

Swiss voters have supported a referendum proposal to ban the building of minarets, official results show.

More than 57% of voters and 22 out of 26 cantons – or provinces – voted in favour of the ban.

The proposal had been put forward by the Swiss People’s Party, (SVP), the largest party in parliament, which says minarets are a sign of Islamisation.

The government opposed the ban, saying it would harm Switzerland’s image, particularly in the Muslim world.

But Martin Baltisser, the SVP’s general secretary, told the BBC: “This was a vote against minarets as symbols of Islamic power.”

The BBC’s Imogen Foulkes, in Bern, says the surprise result is very bad news for the Swiss government which fears unrest among the Muslim community.

Our correspondent says voters worried about rising immigration – and with it the rise of Islam – have ignored the government’s advice.

In a statement, the government said it accepted the decision.

It said: “The Federal Council (government) respects this decision. Consequently the construction of new minarets in Switzerland is no longer permitted.”

This will cause major problems because during this campaign mosques were attacked, which we never experienced in 40 years in Switzerland
Tamir Hadjipolu Zurich’s Association of Muslim Organisations

Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said: “Concerns [about Islamic fundamentalism] have to be taken seriously.

“However, a ban on the construction of new minarets is not a feasible means of countering extremist tendencies.”

She sought to reassure Swiss Muslims, saying the decision was “not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture”.

Switzerland is home to some 400,000 Muslims and has just four minarets.

After Christianity, Islam is the most widespread religion in Switzerland, but it remains relatively hidden.

There are unofficial Muslim prayer rooms, and planning applications for new minarets are almost always refused.

Supporters of a ban claimed that allowing minarets would represent the growth of an ideology and a legal system – Sharia law – which are incompatible with Swiss democracy.

But others say the referendum campaign incited hatred. On Thursday the Geneva mosque was vandalised for the third time during the campaign, according to local media.

Amnesty International said the vote violated freedom of religion and would probably be overturned by the Swiss supreme court or the European Court of Human Rights.

‘Political symbol’

The president of Zurich’s Association of Muslim Organisations, Tamir Hadjipolu, told the BBC: “This will cause major problems because during this campaign mosques were attacked, which we never experienced in 40 years in Switzerland.

“Islamaphobia has increased intensively.”

And there was dismay among Switzerland’s Muslims upon hearing the result.

It’s a message that you are not welcome here as true citizens of this society
Elham Manea, co-founder of the Forum for a Progressive Islam

Farhad Afshar, president of the Coordination of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland, said: “The most painful thing for us is not the ban on minarets but the symbol sent by this vote.

“Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community.”

Elham Manea, co-founder of the Forum for a Progressive Islam, added: “My fear is that the younger generation will feel unwelcome.

“It’s a message that you are not welcome here as true citizens of this society.”

Sunday’s referendum was held after the SVP collected 100,000 signatures from voters within 18 months calling for a vote.

In recent years countries across Europe have been debating how best to integrate Muslim populations.

France focused on the headscarf, while in Germany there was controversy over plans to build one of Europe’s largest mosques.

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