Swiss voters defied their Government and clerics yesterday and approved a ban on building minarets — reflecting an alarming hostility to a rising Muslim minority.
Fifty-seven per cent of voters in a referendum supported the direct democracy initiative, which ensured international embarrassment for Switzerland and a backlash in the Muslim world, upon which the country depends for exports.
A large majority of the 27 cantons supported the move, inspired by the Right, with opposition strongest in the German-speaking part of the country. In Geneva, home to United Nations agencies, the voters rejected the initiative by nearly 60 per cent.
Overall turnout was 53 per cent, a relatively low figure by the standards of Swiss democracy. Opponents of the measure saw this as a reflection of apathy among many voters who would not have approved the ban.
The referendum was initiated by the nationalist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the largest group in the federal parliament, after residents opposed the construction of a minaret in Langenthal, north of Berne.
The “yes” is the latest act by European voters in support of anti-immigrant parties after electoral successes over the past decade by far-right groups in Austria, the Netherlands and France. A jubilant SVP insisted that the vote had nothing to do with intolerance, only with the imposition of Islamic politics and culture.
“In no case does this impinge on religious freedom,” Oskar Freysinger, a prominent SVP politician, said. “This has nothing to do with the practice of religion.”
The populist vote appalled the Swiss Establishment, which had assumed on the basis of opinion polls that a substantial majority would reject the ban. “This is another blow to the world’s view of Switzerland as a nation of tolerance and civilisation,” a senior Swiss diplomat said.
The Government, the business world and most churches had urged voters to turn down the minaret ban, which they said breached the Swiss Constitution and its guarantees of freedom of religion. The proposal, which is to include a sentence in the Constitution prohibiting the construction of minarets, would only “serve the interests of extremist circles”, the Government said.
After the vote it pledged to respect the outcome. “Muslims in Switzerland are able to practise their religion alone or in community with others and live according to their beliefs just as before,” a statement said.
Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, the Justice Minister, said that the vote reflected a fear of Islamic fundamentalism, but the ban was “not a feasible means of countering extremist tendencies”. “I am assuming our trade relations with other countries will become more difficult,” she said.
The vote reflected the strong feeling against Muslims, whose numbers have grown over the past 20 years to about 350,000 or 4 per cent of the population. Most are from Turkey and the Balkans. Only four modest-sized or small minarets exist in Switzerland, where there are about 150 prayer houses. None is used to call the faithful to prayer.
Hans-Rudolf Merz, the Swiss President, had sought to reassure the nation before the vote. “Muslims should be able to practise their religion, and have access to minarets in Switzerland too, but the call of the muezzin will not sound here,” he said.
The SVP used the issue as an assault on what it depicts as the inroads of political Islam in Switzerland, including Sharia practices and oppression of women. “We just want to stop further Islamisation in Switzerland,” Walter Wobmann, head of a committee backing the initiative, said after the vote.
The SVP’s campaign used posters that depicted a burka-clad woman and a Swiss flag bristling with menacing minarets. The party also exploited heavily in its campaign a remark by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, describing minarets as the “bayonets of Islam”.
The vote was in sharp contrast to opinion polls, which predicted that between 53 per cent and 54 per cent would reject the proposal.
Ulrich Schlüer, an SVP parliamentarian who drafted the initiative, told The Times that he had been certain of victory. “We are still at the beginning of the process. We compare our situation to Germany, France or England — the problems they have in their suburbs,” he said. “That is what we do not want here.”
The SVP rejects the Government’s view that a ban would breach the law on freedom of religion. “This is not against Islam. The minaret is a symbol of political power,” Mr Schlüer said.
The Swiss political world is worried at the prospects of a worldwide Muslim backlash of the kind that hit Denmark after a newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
“Swiss-made”, the most trusted brand in the world, is at stake, business leaders said. Gerold Bührer, president of the Swiss Business Federation, reminded the country that it earned £10 billion a year from Muslim countries and that Geneva alone received 174,500 visits from the Gulf last year.
Last night about 300 people protested outside the Parliament building in Berne. In front of a model of a minaret they held up signs saying: “This is not my Switzerland”. A young woman pinned to her jacket a piece of paper saying: “Swiss passport for sale”.
Amnesty International said that the vote would probably be overturned by the Swiss supreme court or the European Court of Human Rights.