Swiss Minaret Ban Reflects Fear, Violates Rights

Swiss voters’ passage of a referendum banning the construction of minarets next to mosques in Switzerland has unleashed international outcry from rights advocates and thrown a harsh light on European countries’ efforts to integrate immigrant populations.

The nationalist Swiss Peoples’ Party sponsored the vote, claiming that minarets represent the first steps toward encroaching radical Islam and the threat of Sharia law in Switzerland. The referendum was opposed by the government and widely expected to fail. Instead, 57 percent of voters approved the measure. The ban comes into effect immediately.

Switzerland is home to only four mosques with minarets, and Muslims make up about 5 percent of the country’s 7.7 million population.

Rights advocates promptly condemned the result as an infringement on freedom of religion, and the ban is expected to face judicial challenges.

“Indeed, a ban on minarets amounts to an undue restriction of the freedom to manifest one’s religion and constitutes a clear discrimination against members of the Muslim community in Switzerland,” the United Nations’ special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jehangir, said in a statement.

“This vote reminds us that no societies are immune to religious intolerance. . . . It is therefore more than ever necessary to continue raising awareness and educating people about religious diversity, enabling all societies to adopt an enlightened and progressive attitude towards the beliefs of other communities.”

Unsurprisingly, others European capitals reacted to the vote. But with one notable exception — French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner’s remarks — the tone of their criticisms remained lukewarm, reflecting Europe’s broader struggle to integrate Muslims into mainstream society.

Opponents of the measure fell victim to complacency ahead of the vote, so confident it would fail that they did little counter-campaigning on the issue. Rights advocates and representatives of the Muslim community interpreted the referendum as an expression of Swiss voters’ fears about issues like forced marriages and religious extremism. But the measure does little to address any of these issues.

Switzerland’s vote comes at a troubled time for European Muslims. France has already enacted a ban on the wearing of religious symbols like headscarves in schools, and legislators are considering an all-out ban on face-covering veils. The Netherlands’ far-right Member of Parliament Geert Wilders and Italy’s Northern League politician Mario Borghezio have also called for referendums on the construction of minarets in their respective countries.

In the wake of the referendum, the Swiss Peoples’ Party is planning to support town-level proposals on issues including banning the burqa, the establishment of committees to identify imams who preach hatred, and the removal of special dispensations that allow Muslim students time to pray.