Swiss To Vote On Proposal To Ban Minarets

Underscoring heightened tensions, Geneva mosque vandalized by unkown assailants

Lisa Bryant

Swiss vote in a referendum Sunday on whether to amend their constitution to ban the construction of minarets. 

The proposal to ban minarets in Switzerland is being championed by the nationalist Swiss People's Party and a fringe party called the Federal Democratic Union.  The People's Party has been critical of foreigners in Switzerland in general, with one proposal to kick whole families of foreigners out of the country if a member breaks Swiss law.

There are reportedly only four minarets in Switzerland. But the campaign to ban them has struck strong chords - both for and against. Campaign posters portray minarets as missiles, rising from the Swiss flag. Underscoring the heightened tensions, the Geneva mosque was vandalized by unkown assailants on Thursday.

Oskar Freysinger is a senior member of the Swiss People's Party. He says he has no problem with constructing mosques in Switzerland. But he argues minarets are not obligatory in Islam. And, as vehicles for the Muslim call to prayer, he says, they are politically symbolic, and therefore violate the Swiss constitution. "First, when there is a muezzin (the person leading the call to prayer), they don't call for the prayer, they declare that Allah is the greatest and the whole world must become Islamic. That's not the same thing. Second, the minaret - not being necessary - it's very visible and the people who pay for it are fundamentalists - they're the Wahabists from Saudi Arabia and they have the intention to make Islamic belief be spread over the whole world and we don't want that," he said.

But Muslims like Hafid Ourardiri argue the campaign reflects a direct attack on Muslims by extremist groups. Ourardiri is head of the Geneva-based Muslim Council of Interknowing, a non-profit that aims to forge bonds between religions and cultures. He says those supporting the minaret ban are mounting a fear campaign that is poisoning Switzerland. "The majority of the Swiss people are with us, are supporting us. The problem is that with fear -- when fear is in the minds of the people," he said.

Surveys show that while Swiss voters are likely to reject the measure banning minarets, roughly a third support it. But there is a sizable campaign against the ban, including business leaders who say it will drive wealthy Muslims away from banking in Switzerland. Human rights groups have joined Muslims in saying the measure violates freedom of expression.

One area where Ourardiri agrees with the anti-minaret campaign is that minarets are not required in Islam. "Minarets are something architectural, they're something of beauty. They're a place for the calling of prayers. But even if we can't use them to call the prayer, they're a place for memory, for history, for culture," he said.

Switzerland is not the only European country where Islamic symbols have been attacked. As the number of Muslims grow, so are pockets of resistance - against building mosques in particular.  Switzerland is home to about 400,000 Muslims who make up less than 10 percent of the population. Still, Islam is the country's second largest religion, after Christianity.

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