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Anti-Islamic Swiss

October 29, 2009

An impassioned debate is underway in Switzerland ahead of a referendum at the end of November. If passed, it would impose a constitutional ban on the building of minarets across the country.

The anti-minaret poster
This image has raised fears

The proposed ban is backed by conservative Christian groups, and by the biggest party in Switzerland's parliament, the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), which argues that allowing the construction of more minarets will lead to the Islamization of Switzerland.

Although few in Switzerland question the country's system of direct democracy, in which the electorate votes on all major decisions, many are uncomfortable with the tone this particular campaign is taking.

This week, posters in favor of a ban on minarets appeared in many Swiss cities. They show a dark, menacing figure of a woman in a black burkha in front the Swiss flag with black minarets springing out of it like missiles.

Islamic threat

There's no mistaking the message: Islam is dangerous, and minarets are the most visible symbol of the threat.

Taner Hatipoglu, who is president of a Muslim association in Zurich, is dismayed, not by the idea of voting on minarets, but by the tone of the campaign.

"Such voting is a tradition in Switzerland," he explains, "So I don't have any problem with that."

"The campaign and the fight over it is the problem," he continues, "This campaign is being used to attack Islam, so the Muslim community is being marginalized. I believe that's a dangerous direction."

Imaginary minarets

There are an estimated 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland, most from the Balkans and Turkey. Although they do have prayer rooms, there are very few mosques with minarets. In fact, there are only four in the entire country, and in recent years, all applications to build minarets have been turned down.

A woman runs past a billboard showing different colored hands reaching for Swiss passports and the word "Stop"
The SVP is known for its provocative campaign postersImage: AP

Ulrich Schluehr of the SVP is a key supporter of the ban on minarets. During well-attended rallies to encourage voters to back the ban, his anti-Islamic speech links minarets with stoning, the cutting off of hands, forced marriages, and Sharia law.

All these things, he claims, lie in wait for Switzerland if voters fail to take a stand against minarets now. Schluehr makes no apology for the posters - for him, their unashamed bluntness is their main virtue.

"Everybody understands the message expressed by these posters," he insists, "That's why the opponents of a ban are against the poster and want to forbid it. They want to oppress free discussion, and that's a strength of Switzerland. Even very serious problems are openly discussed here."

Muslim frustration

But that sentiment is exactly what frustrates Swiss Muslims like Taner Hatipoglu.

"If all the problems they think Muslims cause could be solved by banning minarets I would be the first to vote for it," he says, "But if people vote yes these problems won't be solved at all. This is just a smokescreen for attacking Muslims."

A mosque in Switzerland
Minarets are extremely rare in SwitzerlandImage: pa / dpa

There has been a heated debate about the posters across Switzerland. The Federal Office Against Racism has condemned them, some cities have banned them, and Alexander Tschaeppat, mayor of the Swiss capital, Bern, is also advising against their use.

"We are not allowed to forbid them," he explains, "But we have recommended that they are not put up. We don't want them on our streets, in our clubs, or in our soccer stadiums. As politicians we have to try to ensure a certain correctness."

But as the campaign continues, the posters are appearing in more and more places, and many are wondering just how far freedom of expression and open debate should go. Islam is, after Christianity, Switzerland's most widespread religion.

Most Muslims living in Switzerland are Swiss, and there is growing concern that, whichever way the final vote goes, this campaign will leave a legacy of bitterness and exclusion within a significant part of Switzerland's population.

Author: Imogen Foulkes/bk
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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