Swiss Nationalist Force Referendum on Minaret Ban

Eliane Engeler, AP, July 8, 2008

Swiss nationalists are forcing a popular vote on whether to ban the construction of Muslim minarets—a proposal that, if approved, could clash with Switzerland’s constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion.

The Interior Ministry said it received a petition Tuesday for a referendum on the issue with more than the required 100,000 signatures.

It was submitted by members of the nationalist Swiss People’s Party and the fringe Federal Democratic Union, which say they are acting to fight the spread of political Islam. They argue the minaret symbolizes a bid for political and religious power rather than just a religious sign.

People’s Party lawmaker Walter Wobmann defended the move, saying the authorization for constructing a minaret in Winterthur near Zurich and pending requests in three other Swiss towns have exceeded the limits of many Swiss people’s tolerance.

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Opponents of a construction ban said it would violate religious freedom, and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has warned it would lead to a security risk for Switzerland by sparking Muslim anger.

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Henri-Maxime Khedoud, spokesman for the Swiss Association of Muslims for Secularism, said the latest initiative is an attack on Muslims and contrary to the freedom of everyone to practice his faith.

Khedoud also said the referendum appeared to be a bid for attention and expressed confidence that Swiss voters would see through the headline-grabbing political stunt.

More than 310,000 of Switzerland’s 7.5 million people are Muslims, according to the Federal Statistical Office.

The Swiss government is concerned about the impact the referendum will have on its international image. Swiss President Pascal Couchepin said the government will recommend voters reject the proposed ban. Other members of Switzerland’s cross-party government have also spoken out against the ban.

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A United Nations expert on racism, Doudou Diene, says the campaign is evidence of an “ever-increasing trend” toward anti-Islamic actions in Europe.

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No date has been set for the referendum. If it is approved, the Swiss parliament will have to enact a law enshrining a construction ban in the constitution.

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