Swiss face backlash over minaret ban

GENEVA: Switzerland confronted an international backlash today over a shock vote to ban new minarets, while the government struggled to reassure stunned Muslims that they were not regarded as outcasts.

Muslim leaders expressed dismay after a referendum on Sunday voted for a constitutional ban on the construction of towers attached to mosques from where Muslims are traditionally called to prayer.

Some 57.5 per cent of those who cast their ballot supported the measure amid a high turnout by Swiss standards of 53 per cent.

The result flew in the face of opinion polls that had predicted a ‘no’ vote, and caught out government ministers who had opposed the ban alongside the bulk of Switzerland’s political and religious establishment.

The government rushed to assure the country’s 400,000 Muslims, mainly from the Balkans and Turkey, that the outcome was not a rejection of the Muslim religion or culture.

However, the result was condemned in the world’s most populous Muslim nations and elsewhere in Europe as a display of intolerance.

Swiss newspapers also warned that the referendum had inflicted “spectacular

damage” to the country’s international standing and the country could become the targets of boycotts and other forms of retaliation.

“Some people, traumatised by the crisis, put a vote of protest and suspicion, rather than hate or mistrust in the box. It has come out as a bomb,” Le Temps daily said.

Members of the hard right Swiss People’s Party — Switzerland’s biggest party — and other right wing groups brought the ‘people’s initiative’ referendum after petitioning 100,000 signatures from eligible voters.

The constitutional amendment only bans the construction of minarets, and has

no impact on mosques, or a cornerstone of the Swiss constitution, the freedom of religious worship.

“The most painful for us is not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote. Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community,” said Farhad Afshar, who heads the Coordination of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland.

Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, called the vote “an expression of intolerance and I detest intolerance.” Maskuri Abdillah, head of Indonesia’s biggest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama, said that vote reflected “a hatred of Swiss people against Muslim communities”.