Switzerland’s reputation as a haven of tolerance for immigrants has been undermined in recent weeks by calls for a ban on new minarets, a mysterious synagogue blaze and neo-Nazi threats to disrupt national day celebrations.
Switzerland is known for public order and efficiency. Its neutral status and high living standards, as well as its need for lower cost workers, have historically attracted refugees from conflicts around Europe and the world.
But with rising immigration—and lack of integration caused partly by tight laws on handing out Swiss passports—religious and ethnic tension has been on the rise, particularly focusing on Muslims.
By the end of 2005, more than a fifth of Switzerland’s 7.5 million residents were foreigners, a higher proportion than in any other European country except Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, according to the Federal Statistics Office.
Most of those are from Europe, with large communities from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, many of those Muslims who fled the conflicts there.
“Radical Islam is a huge foreign political factor,” said Swiss culture and politics expert Jonathan Steinberg of the University of Pennsylvania. “None of the immigration before constituted an international threat. Now they do.”
Foreigners accounted for more than 40 percent of registered jobless in April, according to government figures.
A group of right-wing Swiss politicians has launched a campaign to ban the construction of minarets, claiming they are a symbol of power and threaten law and order.
The attempt to launch a national referendum on minarets has triggered widespread criticism but also attracted some support.