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Minarets provoke heated global reaction

Swiss minarets are a subject of reflection

(Keystone)

Few votes have generated as many comments – or as much emotion – among swissinfo.ch readers around the world as that on minarets on November 29.

Ever since the launch of the campaign in July 2008 to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland, online pundits have rushed to their keyboards to attack minarets – or minaret attackers – on swissinfo.ch's nine language sites.

Our Arab site continues to receive a particularly high amount of feedback, especially since it includes comments from blogs and Facebook sites on the subject.

The English, French and German sites have also seen well above average numbers. Fewer comments have been sent in Italian and fewer still in Spanish or Portuguese. Our Chinese and Japanese journalists have seen hardly any feedback, showing that interest in minarets is far from universal.

The initial reactions from the Muslim world, back in August 2008, to the launch of the people's initiative, were of incomprehension and incredulity.

"It appears Muslims are facing another Inquisition in Europe," wrote one Moroccan reader.

"I'm surprised by this racist law – especially in Switzerland, a country that considers itself neutral," added an Algerian.

Another said he was "sure the government would ban this unfair decision".

Complex issue

That reader would have been disappointed. After a heated debate, parliament concluded that the initiative could go to a nationwide vote as it did not clearly infringe international law.

It did judge, however, that the initiative restricted the religious freedom anchored in the constitution in an inadmissible way. Both the cabinet and parliament are recommending voters reject it.

Despite swissinfo.ch's best efforts, it soon became clear that this essential part of Switzerland's direct democracy was easy to misunderstand: people's initiatives are not laws and the last word goes to the people not the government.

Unsurprisingly, most comments on the Arabic site have been against the initiative. But in the other languages roughly two-thirds of readers don't think minarets and Switzerland go together.

This contradicts a poll from October 23 by the leading gfs.berne polling and research institute in which 53 per cent of Swiss rejected the initiative.

Islamicisation

"The minaret is clearly an icon of the Islamic faith," said a woman from the United States. "And the Islamic faith supports the oppression of women. It might take decades, but believe me: once Islam has a majority, it will demand Sharia law and all the other throwbacks from the seventh century."

She wasn't the only reader to fear Islamicisation of the West, a factor that has been pushed heavily by the campaign's supporters.

"I am very sad – and in truth slightly angry – when I walk through a town packed with burkhas and halal butchers," said a reader in Britain.

A swissinfo.ch reader in Paris complained about streets in part of the capital being "blocked every Friday for two hours while Muslims pray".

Women in scarves, children indoctrinated to become terrorists – even female circumcision and honour killings: every fear associated with Islam appeared under a minaret – "the sign that an area has been conquered and is now under Islamic law", to quote one reader.

Cultural suicide?

A reader resident in secular Turkey encouraged the Swiss to accept the initiative because "one sees in Europe countless examples of the disastrous consequences of ceding to incessant Muslim demands". For him, voting to ban the construction of minarets would help Switzerland "avoid the path of cultural suicide".

And driving the point home, a Belgian reader thanked the People's Party "for defending Europe's Christian civilisation, which is currently under serious threat".

A more nuanced view from Libya: "Muslim culture is foreign to Europe. Muslims in Europe need to understand that and try to integrate in their respective societies – otherwise Europe is in for a big shock."

One argument that regularly popped up – in all languages, including Chinese – was: "they can build a minaret here when I can build a church in Saudi Arabia."

However, many readers – from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Morocco and the Palestinian territories – pointed out that bells and minarets are often found side by side.

But that didn't convince this emigrant, who had left her country of origin for Switzerland "because of the rise in Islamic fundamentalism". "My family and I feel at home here, and because of my previous experience I will be voting for the initiative. That will be my contribution to preserving the Switzerland that I know and love."

Tolerance

On the other side, most people who said they would be voting no on November 29 cited religious freedom and the so-called Silver Rule: "do not do to others what you would not like to be done to you".

"One must respect the beliefs of others and even create a place of worship to those who kneel before the Smurfs," said one Swiss reader/philosopher.

"Switzerland is not Saudi Arabia – it respects human rights," added another. "It seems to me that supporters of the initiative, in the name of defending the West, are in fact throwing out of the window those values on which the West is based."

A Catholic in Uruguay regretted not being able to vote and thus "help save from intolerance a country that knows how to be open".

"What's the problem with minarets?" asked one reader in the US. "If you have confidence in your culture, tradition and religion, you're not threatened by another group trying to bring in its own version. Perhaps this debate says more about the decline of Swiss culture than the rise of Muslim culture in Switzerland..."

Others denounced the "racist", "xenophobic" and even "Fascist" People's Party, which was using fear of Islam "like Hitler used fear of Jews".

Bigger problems

Finally, there are those commentators for whom gods and other sky pixies belong in children's books.

"The less religion in the world, the less the risk of conflict," wrote one Swiss reader who intended to reject the initiative.

"I think it's by tolerating totally inoffensive things like this that one can demand respect from the other side," added another Swiss. "And frankly, our good old church bells, which make our ears bleed at 9am every Sunday, aren't much better."

For another Swiss, in these times of economic crisis "the country definitely has other problems to worry about than minarets".

Marc-André Miserez, swissinfo.ch (Adapted from French by Thomas Stephens)

In brief

The people's initiative "Against the Construction of Minarets", if adopted, would involve a change to the federal constitution.

To be adopted therefore, there has to be a double yes vote on Sunday, November 29: both a majority of the electorate and a majority of the cantons have to approve it.

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Minarets in Switzerland

A minaret is a tower, traditionally part of a mosque, with a balcony from which a muezzin calls Muslims to prayer. In modern mosques, the minaret is equipped with loudspeakers.

In Switzerland, only the mosques in Geneva, Zurich and Wangen near Olten have a minaret, Winterthur's mosque only has a small one. But the call to prayer is not made from these minarets.

Request for minarets in at least two other towns, Langenthal and Wil, led to heated debates at the local level.

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