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Swiss Ban on Minarets Causes Shockwaves

by Paola Totaro
SWISS voters have shocked their Government, sealing a ban on the construction of minarets and unveiling an unexpectedly hostile public response to Europe's growing Muslim population.

A campaign by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) to initiate a referendum and formally gauge support for a proposed minaret in a small town north of Berne elicited the backlash, with 57 per cent of voters approving the ban.

A woman writes slogans on a symbolic minaret erected to protest against the results of a vote in Switzerland at the Place Neuve square in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, Nov. 30, 2009. Slogan at top reads, 'Forgive them! We did not vote for the ban, long live tolerance'. (AP Photo/Keystone, Laurent Gillieron) ''My first reaction is one of surprise and disappointment,'' Babacar Ba, the Geneva ambassador of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, said.

''It is a bad answer to a bad question. I fear that this kind of thing is simply a gift to extremism and intolerance. I think we must be very vigilant in the face of the upsurge of Islamophobia.''

Sunday's vote will also be read as further evidence of Switzerland's resistance to more integration with Europe and integration with the European Union.

The use of direct democracy to bury the building application has severely embarrassed the Government, which did not expect the result.

Switzerland is a major exporter to the Muslim world.

Because the ban gained a majority of votes and passed in a majority of the cantons, it will be added to the constitution.

Switzerland has a system of direct democracy for single-issue political decisions, allowing its citizens a voice on important policy proposals.

The SVP, the biggest group in the Swiss Federal Parliament, used a graphic and inflammatory poster for its campaign, which included a picture of minarets in the shape of missiles on a Swiss flag and a woman in a burqa depicted standing in front of them.

Walter Wobmann, president of the committee that pushed for the referendum, said the group wanted to ''stop further Islamisation in Switzerland. We're enormously happy. It is a victory for this people, this Switzerland, this freedom and those who want a democratic society.''

The referendum was sparked by a development application by the Muslim community in the town of Langenthal seeking to add a 10-metre minaret to the local mosque. The issue began as one of architecture but soon exploded into a debate about Muslim communities and integration into Swiss culture.

The result is being widely read in Europe as the most recent expression of European voters' increasing hostility to Muslim immigrants and a rise in support for anti-immigration parties that has resulted in far-right groups in the Netherlands, Austria, France and Britain gaining electoral traction.

In their campaign, SVP supporters pointed to social problems in neighbouring European nations, arguing that Switzerland did not want to walk that path. The group argued that the vote had little to do with intolerance but simply sent a powerful expression of national sentiment about the imposition of Islamic cultures.

Switzerland's Muslim communities have grown during the past two decades to about 350,000 people - about 4 per cent of the population - in the wake of migration from the Balkans and Turkey.

Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said the result of the referendum reflected fears among the Swiss of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies. ''But the Federal Council [government] takes the view that a ban on the construction of new minarets is not a feasible means of countering extremist tendencies.''

■ Australian Federation of Islamic Councils president Ikebal Adam Patel expressed deep concern at the ban. ''This is yet another example of Islamophobia,'' he said, adding that the ban would ''breach Switzerland's obligations towards upholding freedom of religion and equates to requiring churches not to display a cross or a synagogue not displaying the Star of David''. Mr Patel called on the Australian Government to ''put pressure on Switzerland to remove this ban''.

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