If Sunday’s referendum on banning the construction of minarets is successful, then many people in Switzerland – a country traditionally tolerant when it comes to religion – will be dismayed.
This is the first time that a European country has voted directly on Islam and the practices of Muslims. Proposed and pushed forward by the anti-imigration, rightwing, populist “Swiss People’s Party”, the referendum has, as intended, triggered months of debate and an unofficial ban on building minarets.
Islam is the second largest religion in Switzerland numbering around 310,000 people, most originally from the Balkans. They make up 4.3% of the population, but the majority are not practising Muslims and out of 200 prayer houses in Switzerland, only four can boast a minaret and only two more have been planned, in Will and in Langenthal.
But the Swiss People’s Party has wallpapered the country with posters showing black minarets looking like missiles and a woman wearing a black burqa.
The posters follow on the heels of the infamous black sheep campaign and have been banned in some cities, like Basel, where they were deemed inflamatory. But the Swiss People’s Party is powerful, playing as it does to populist fears of the country being over-run by foreigners.
Says Walter Wobmann, of the Swiss People’s Party: “Minarets are symbols of power, this is the beginning of Islamisation; the second step will be calls to prayer, the third step will be Islamic Sharia law. We do not want that here in Switzerland.”
UN human rights workers say the ban would violate laws on religious freedom. The Swiss government is also against the ban, saying it would breach anti-discrimination laws.
The Head of the Swiss Federation of Protestant Churches, and President of the inter-faith Swiss Council of Religions, Thomas Wipf, is also against the ban. He said: “This campaign against minarets is dangerous because it assumes that different religions cannot live together, that they have to fight each other. But we have to get closer. We have to learn to talk to each other. This is the real challenge!”
Polls show that the anti-minaret lobby will be defeated on Sunday, although around a third of voters could support the ban.
Swiss leaders will oppose the ban for reasons of tolerance, Middle East trade prospects and fears of a radical Muslim backlash – but thousands of ordinary people are likely to take a more disinterested view: why shouldn’t Muslim prayer houses have minarets?