Page last updated at 21:49 GMT, Sunday, 29 November 2009

Swiss referendum 'reflects unease with Islam'

As a Swiss referendum backs a ban on the building of minarets, the BBC's Islamic affairs analyst Roger Hardy looks at the often uneasy relationship between Islam and Europe.

Swiss People's Party poster against minarets
The campaign against minarets was led by the Swiss People's Party

It might be argued that Switzerland is a special case without much relevance to the rest of Europe.

It is true enough that the country has its own individual form of popular democracy - and that it is home to only 320,000 Muslims, between 4% and 5% of the population.

But it is not just in Switzerland that the presence of growing Muslim communities has polarised opinion.

A series of controversies from the Rushdie affair 20 years ago to the more recent row over Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad have reflected the unease that many Europeans feel about this relatively new Muslim presence.

This is not confined to a few tabloid newspapers or a few xenophobic right-wing parties.

It is an Islamophobia driven by a variety of factors.

Since the attacks of 9/11 in the United States, and the bombings in Madrid and London, Muslims have often been regarded as a security threat.

They are seen as not just resistant to integration, but determined to impose their values on the Christian or post-Christian societies of the West.

For governments anxious to maintain social harmony at home and good relations with Muslim governments abroad, this poses a set of difficult dilemmas.

And for many of the estimated 15 million Muslims in Western Europe, the Swiss vote will be seen as one more sign that - whatever governments may say - they are simply not welcome.

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