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.
A Violation of Human Rights
The vote will undoubtedly change the image of Switzerland abroad. The country likes to present itself as a neutral guardian of human rights. It is the country where the Red Cross was established and the Geneva Convention was passed. But now the supposed model democracy has violated the human right of freedom of religion and has discriminated against a group solely on the basis of their religion.
The ban will have serious consequences. It will not eliminate immigration-related problems in Switzerland, but it will produce major problems for Switzerland in its international relations. The Swiss banks and the Swiss economy, which have close ties with economies around the world, including in the Arab world, will suffer as a result. There may also be damage to the tourism industry.
The ban will damage Switzerland's credibility as a mediator in the eyes of Muslim countries, whether it be as a diplomatic representative of the US in Iran or in the conflict between Armenia and Turkey. And finally it will cause massive damage to the relationship between the Swiss and the Muslims living in the country, promoting exactly that isolation from the rest of society which the initiative was supposedly intended to address.
The problems for Switzerland don't end there. The last year has been a difficult one for the country as economic superpowers blasted Bern for protecting tax dodgers, the result being a significant retreat from the country's almost mythical banking secrecy rules. In addition, Switzerland's largest bank, UBS, almost fell victim to the financial crisis and was further damaged by allegations of illegal activities. Even the arrest of star director Roman Polanski in Zurich generated the kind of publicity many in Switzerland would rather avoid. The fact that Swiss citizens are now discriminating against a religion in a manner that violates human rights will further damage the country's reputation.
Still, it is likely that minarets will continue to be built in Switzerland. The European Court of Human Rights is sure to take on the case, with most legal experts seeing a violation of freedom of religion and a clear-cut case of discrimination. Nevertheless, the damage has been done.
Concern about growing numbers of Muslims and the visibility of Islam isn't, of course, just limited to Switzerland. Both Cologne and Copenhagen have seen minaret debates of their own, the burqa is an issue in France and anti-Muslim politicians have had great success in Holland. So far, centrist politicians across the continent have failed to find an adequate response to the growing concern.
As such, it would be inaccurate to explain away the Swiss referendum results by merely pointing to xenophobia in the country. It is also an expression of the failures of the liberal political elite to adequately address the issue and to find solutions to the real and perceived problems with Muslim immigrants.
It is an issue that clearly concerns a large portion of the Swiss population; it would be a major misstep to allow right-wing populists to control the debate. Otherwise, extreme measures, like bans on minarets, can be expected to increase -- in Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe.