By Mathieu von Rohr
There are only four minarets in Switzerland. One of them was completed just a few months ago in the village of Wangen bei Olten, population 5,000. It may just be a tiny tower in the middle of an industrial area, but its construction sparked a national controversy. It eventually led to a referendum campaign by a right-wing religious grouping that wanted to enshrine the following sentence in the Swiss constitution: "The construction of minarets is forbidden."
On Sunday, the Swiss voted in favor of the ban. The results were highly surprising, contradicting all the polls and the fact that the government and almost all the major parties had campaigned for a "no" vote.
Some 57.5 percent of voters supported the ban. The initiative was also supported by the required majority of cantons, with 22 of Switzerland's 26 cantons voting in favor of the ban. The two city cantons of Geneva and Basel-City rejected the proposal, as did two French-speaking cantons, Neuchâtel and Vaud.
It is a shockingly clear success for a proposal which originated from politicians on the far right of the political spectrum.
For a long time, the initiative only seemed to be supported by a right-wing splinter group. Even Christoph Blocher, the longtime leader of the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party (SVP), publicly distanced himself from the initiative, although his party almost unanimously expressed its support for the ban in the end.
But the organizers of the campaign managed to turn the dispute over minarets into a symbolic referendum on the influence of Islam. They did not speak much about minarets. Instead, they talked about Sharia law, burqas and the oppression of women in the Islamic world. In the end, even the prominent feminist Julia Onken supported the initiative.
The poster which the organizers used for their campaign showed a number of black minarets resembling rockets standing closely together on a Swiss flag. In front of the flag, a woman stared angrily out from beneath a black burqa. It was an image of a Switzerland that had been taken over by Islam. Minarets are "symbols of power" of a foreign religion, argued politician Ulrich Schlüer, who belongs to the SVP's right wing. The ban, he said, represents a clear statement against their spread.
The debate was largely divorced from the reality of Switzerland. Although around 22 percent of the population is of foreign origin, the country has so far had relatively few problems with its roughly 400,000 Muslims. Most of them are liberally minded Bosnians, Kosovo Albanians and Turks and their approximately 160 mosques are practically invisible. Burqas are seldom seen on Swiss streets and there have never been serious calls for the introduction of Sharia law.
The decision, therefore, does not reflect real problems in Switzerland, but rather a general feeling of unease toward Islam. The issue revolves around a deep-seated fear that society's values could be in danger.
However it is conceivable that the ongoing conflict with the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi could also have played a small role. Gadhafi is currently holding two Swiss citizens hostage in retaliation for the arrest of one of his sons in Geneva. But the crucial element was probably a fundamental need to clarify once and for all who has the final say in Switzerland.
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