Swiss voters on November 29 overwhelmingly approved a referendum to ban the construction of minarets, the tower-like structures on mosques that are often used to call Muslims to prayer. The surprise outcome of the referendum, which passed with a clear majority of 57.5 percent of the voters, represents a turning point in the debate about Islam, not only in Switzerland, but across Europe more generally.

The initiative was sponsored by the conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which argues that a minaret is a symbol of Islamic intolerance. The SVP, which also happens to be the biggest political party in Switzerland, says the minaret is really an emblem of war. It describes the minaret as a “symbol of a religious-political claim to power and dominance which threatens – in the name of alleged freedom of religion – the constitutional rights of others.”

The SVP backs its claim by citing a famous remark by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once implied that the construction of mosques and minarets is part of a strategy for the Islamization of Europe. The pro-Islamist Erdogan said: “The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the faithful our army.”

The current controversy dates back to 2005, when the Turkish cultural association in Wangen bei Olten, a small town of some 4,500 people in northern Switzerland, applied for a permit to erect a 6-meter (20 feet) high minaret on the roof of its Islamic community center. The project to build the minaret, which was opposed by the majority of local residents, was roundly rejected by the town’s building and planning commission. But the Turkish cultural association appealed the decision, claiming that the local building authorities were motivated by religious bias. The case eventually made its way to the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, which in 2007 ruled that the project could proceed. The minaret was finally erected in July 2009.

Up until recently, Muslims living in Switzerland had mostly been keeping a low profile, preferring to practice their religion discretely in nondescript mosques. But over the past several years the number of mosques has mushroomed; there now are some 200 mosques and up to 1,000 prayer rooms dotted across the country. And although only four of those have minarets (plans to build a half-dozen more minarets will now be scrapped), observers say the minarets symbolize the growing self-confidence of Switzerland’s Muslim community.

Indeed, the Muslim population in Switzerland has more than quintupled since 1980, and now numbers about 400,000, or roughly 5 percent of the population. Most Muslims living in Switzerland are of Turkish or Balkan origin, with a smaller minority from the Arab world. Many of them are second and third generation immigrants who are now firmly establishing themselves in Switzerland.

The new Muslim demographic reality is raising tensions across large parts of Swiss society, especially as conservative Muslims become more assertive in their demands for greater recognition of their faith.

In one case, for example, Muslim parents recently won a lawsuit demanding that they be allowed to dress their children in full-body bathing suits dubbed ‘burkinis’ during co-ed swimming lessons. In another case, a group of Swiss supermarkets created a stir by banning Muslim employees from wearing headscarves. And in August 2009, the Swiss basketball association told a Muslim player she could not wear a headscarf during league games.

Similar controversies over the role of Islam in European society and how to reconcile Western values with a growing immigrant population are playing themselves out with increasing frequency in towns and cities across the continent.

But the disputes over mosque- and minaret-building, which are currently raging in Austria, Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland, are far more polemical.

Critics fear that mosques, which are becoming an increasingly prominent feature of the European landscape, are facilitating the establishment of a completely parallel Muslim society, one that is especially welcoming to Islamic fundamentalists. Even some voices on the political left, which has viewed the construction of mosques as symbols of Europe’s post-Christian sophistication and open-mindedness, are beginning to voice concerns that their proliferation is a sign of failing integration.

But left-wing elites in Switzerland and elsewhere accuse groups like the SVP of going too far. As part of its campaign, for example, the SVP published a controversial poster showing the Swiss flag with a woman veiled in black and surrounded by minarets that resemble missiles. Some Swiss cities refused to permit distribution of the posters on the grounds that they incited racism and hatred of Muslims, while others allowed them on freedom-of-speech grounds.

Fearful of a radicalization of Muslims at home and reprisals against Swiss interests abroad, the Swiss government had come out strongly against the minaret referendum. Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, a former member of SVP, said the ban would violate the Swiss constitution, which guarantees the freedom of belief and worship for all citizens without exception. And Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said a ‘yes’ vote “could make Switzerland a target for Islamic terrorism.”

Swiss businesses, many with large interests in Muslim countries, also came out against the referendum. They are now hoping to avoid a Muslim boycott similar to the one that hit Denmark in 2005 following a controversy over newspaper cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

As a result, the Swiss political establishment can be expected to try to find a way to overturn the referendum, possibly by taking a page from the EU playbook, and forcing another referendum until Swiss voters produce the “correct” answer.

In any case, critics say the decision to ban minarets will have little practical effect in the sense that it does not prohibit the construction of new mosques. Nor does it require that existing minarets be torn down. Moreover, the new measure does nothing to improve the integration of Muslims into Swiss society, which lies at the heart of the problem.

But supporters say that is not the point. They say the SVP’s main achievement has really been to draw the public’s attention to the limits of European multiculturalism, especially amid a growing perception that Islam poses a threat to traditional Swiss identity. Indeed, Swiss voters across the political spectrum seem to agree that Muslim immigrants need to be much better assimilated and socially integrated.

In the final analysis, however, the anti-minaret referendum may end up having its greatest impact outside of Switzerland, as conservatives in other European countries will now be emboldened to more forcefully question previously sacrosanct policies on Muslim immigration. If this happens, the Swiss vote will turn out to be the first salvo in a long overdue debate about the role of Islam in Europe.

Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group

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