Page last updated at 13:55 GMT, Monday, 30 November 2009

Minaret ban marks start of tough Swiss debate on Islam

By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Berne

In Switzerland the soul-searching has begun following Sunday's nationwide referendum in which voters surprisingly backed a plan to ban the construction of minarets.

Geneva's great mosque with its minaret, 29 November 2009
Existing minarets on Swiss mosques will not be removed

No-one can quite understand how a proposal widely regarded even by its supporters as destined for failure at the ballot box actually came to be passed.

That, however, according to political analysts, may have been part of the problem.

Opinion polls showing a majority of voters would reject a ban were only to be expected, says Zurich political scientist Michael Hermann, when most of the Swiss media had already categorised a ban on minarets as politically incorrect and its supporters stupid.

"People aren't necessarily going to tell pollsters the truth if they think it makes them look ignorant and intolerant," explained Mr Hermann.

Unease underestimated

What many Swiss politicians are beginning to realise this morning is that they underestimated the concern among their population about integration of Muslims in Switzerland, and about possible Islamic extremism.

My fear is that the younger generation will feel unwelcome
Elham Manea
Forum for a Progressive Islam

So while the right-wing Swiss People's Party campaigned hard, warning in meetings up and down the country of the possible introduction of Sharia law in Switzerland, the middle ground and left-wing parties did very little.

There were few posters, and none to compete with the People's Party's eye-catching and controversial offering, which showed a woman shrouded in a black burka, a map of Switzerland behind her, black minarets shooting out of it like missiles.

Elham Manea, founder of the Forum for a Progressive Islam - an organisation dedicated to Muslim integration in Switzerland - is disappointed not just with the outcome of the vote, but with the debate around it.

"The way the discussion was conducted was simply polemic," she said.

"We didn't ask the right questions, when we talked about integration problems for immigrants with an Islamic background.

"For example what is the size of political Islam, how big is the problem of forced marriage? Do we have that problem? Yes we do, we know we do, but which groups are practising it, and how do we deal with it?"

The problem for Ms Manea, and many Swiss Muslims, is that the ban on minarets does not really address any of these problems and may even isolate the community still further.

"My fear is that the younger generation will feel unwelcome," she said.

"It's a message sent to them that you are not welcome here as true citizens of this society and that could leave the ground open for Islamic extremist groups who are just waiting to exploit that sort of frustration for their own ends."

Nervous government

Meanwhile Swiss cabinet ministers who had advised, and confidently expected, voters to reject a ban, have woken up to newspaper headlines calling the referendum a slap in the face for the government, and a "catastrophe" for Switzerland.

[The vote is] a clear sign that the Muslim community must get on with integrating itself right away
Hermann Leu
Thurgau People's Party representative

They are now facing the delicate task of explaining the voters' decision to Muslim countries with whom Switzerland has traditionally good trade relations. Within government circles, there is the expectation that these relations will be damaged and that the Swiss economy may suffer as a result.

So concerned is the government by the decision that Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer Schlumpf, watching the results come in on Sunday afternoon, apparently told her advisers there ought to be some restrictions on what the general public can actually vote on.

This, for Switzerland, is political dynamite. The country's system of direct democracy is sacrosanct. The people are allowed to vote on any policy and to propose policy themselves, which is what they did on minarets.

The fact that there is little evidence of Muslim extremism in Switzerland and that the banning of minarets would be unlikely to prevent extremism even if it did exist, does not really matter. The real issue is that there was clearly unease among the Swiss population, particularly among rural communities, about Islam.

The People's Party played on those fears while the Swiss government did not address them at all. Now Switzerland's image abroad, and its relations with its own Muslim community, may bear the consequences.

There are already indications that, buoyed by the size of the vote in favour of the ban, the Swiss People's Party is planning further measures.

Hermann Leu, a local People's Party representative from Thurgau canton, described the size of the vote in favour as "a clear sign that the Muslim community must get on with integrating itself right away".

Proposals from some towns include banning the burka, setting up committees to identify imams who preach "hate", detaining and deporting them, and banning school dispensations in which Muslim children stay away from swimming lessons or take time out for prayers.

Switzerland's debate about Islam has now well and truly begun but perhaps not in the way Swiss Muslims would have wished it.

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