A model of a minaret, burning candles and a banner that reads "This is not my Switzerland" are seen on the Bundesplatz square in front of the governments building in Bern, Switzerland, to protest the acceptance of a minaret ban initiative on December 6, 2009. Photo: AP
Recently 58 percent of voters in Switzerland have approved a ban on the building of new minarets. This development has brought Switzerland suddenly into limelight and controversy.
According to a report “Switzerland’s Invisible Minarets” by Swiss author Peter Stamm in New York Times, December 4, 2009, when the minaret referendum was proposed by the rightist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), no one really took it seriously. However, as soon as the referendum was held, not only a tiny Muslim minority in Switzerland but people in general irrespective of their religion became restless and began disapproving and condemning it. In his report “Jews Back Muslims on Minaret Ban” Matthew Wagner and Herb Keinon, appearing in Jerusalem Post, December 3, 2009, reveals that the main Jewish organizations are vehemently opposing it.
Anti-Defamation League (ADL) tied the move to religious discrimination against Jews. "This is not the first time a Swiss popular vote has been used to promote religious intolerance," said the ADL in a press release. "A century ago, a Swiss referendum banned Jewish ritual slaughter, in an attempt to drive out its Jewish population," adds the ADL.
Noting that the "Swiss government opposed the initiative during the campaign and underscored its commitment to religious freedom in a statement after the vote," the ADL urged Swiss leaders to "be vigilant" in their "defense of religious freedom, even though the SVP is the largest party in the Swiss Parliament and has two of the seven ministers."
Echoing the same sentiments, the American Jewish Committee's David Harris said: "The referendum result amounts to an attack on the fundamental values of mutual respect."
"While there are certainly understandable concerns in Europe over Islamist extremism, these cannot be legitimately addressed through a blanket assault on Muslim communities and their religious symbols," he added.
Meanwhile, it appears that Italy might hold an anti-minaret referendum of its own. Roberto Caldeoli, leader of Italy's right-wing Northern League party, said: "Respect for other religions is important, but we must put the brakes on Muslim propaganda, or else we will end up with an Islamic political party."
However, it is said that Jewish organizations could have come to the defence of Muslim worshipers and their minarets arguing that the Swiss's move was unjustifiable and realizing that a crackdown on Islam could have repercussions for Jews as well.
Peter Stamm further says: “Some consideration was given to having it declared invalid on the grounds that it was unconstitutional as well as a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, but in the end the government agreed to allow the referendum to go forward, probably in the hope that it would be roundly defeated and thereby become a symbol of Swiss open-mindedness. So certain were the politicians of prevailing that hardly any publicity was fielded against the initiative. As a result, the streets were dominated by the proponents’ posters, which showed a veiled woman in front of a forest of minarets that looked like missiles.
Minarets have never been a problem in Switzerland. There are four in the entire country, some of which have been standing for decades. The average Swiss citizen has no real contact with Islam. Most people encounter Islam only through the news media, which don’t report on the Muslims in our country but focus on terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Iranian plans for an atomic bomb and Muammar el-Qaddafi’s absurd proposal to abolish Switzerland.
It’s hard to find one overarching explanation for why the Swiss voted as they did. Similar referendums have brought surprises: 35 percent of voters wanting to do away with the army, for instance, or 58 percent approving of same-sex partnerships. The prevailing Swiss attitude is both conservative and liberal: on the one hand everything should stay the way it is, on the other everyone should be able to do what he or she wants, concludes Peter Stamm.