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The minaret initiative is "a proxy war"

(Keystone)

A call to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland has raised heated debate ahead of a nationwide vote next month.

The government strongly opposes the initiative, and has launched its own campaign against it.

The proposal, backed by the rightwing Swiss People's Party, is also opposed by all the other main parties.

Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf tells swissinfo.ch why she and her colleagues believe that it is counterproductive, but plays down fears expressed by some that it is already damaging Switzerland's reputation abroad.

In her opinion many people have recognised that the Swiss system of direct democracy and open discussion are some of the country's strengths.

swissinfo.ch: Observers say that Switzerland is suffering a loss of image in Muslim countries as a result of the anti-minaret initiative. Do you share that view?

Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf: I have not seen any sign that we have suffered as a result of discussions on this issue. There has been no real threat either.

On the contrary: thanks to our embassies, who have done excellent work in communicating, we have been able to show that direct democracy and open discussion are part of our [democratic] rights.

I believe that people abroad have understood this. And I also think that people respect the fact that we in Switzerland discuss issues that would not be discussed abroad. This is an important quality.

I also note – and I really appreciate this – that the Muslim population of Switzerland are not allowing themselves to be provoked by what is to some extent a very emotional campaign, but are trying to explain objectively what Islam is and what it is not.

I think it's a good thing that we can now talk not only about attitudes and the common ground there is between religions, but also about the limits of individual freedoms and the role of the state in our society.

swissinfo.ch: Veils, bans on using swimming pools, forced marriages and genital mutilation are not Swiss values nor do they promote emancipation. How do you see this?

E. W-S.: I am in favour of a liberal society and of equal rights for women and men. It not permissible for women and girls to be treated differently, but that's not the question being raised by this initiative.

The minaret initiative is a kind of "proxy war". Its supporters say they are against minarets. But they want to fight [what they consider] increasing Islamicisation and sharia law and mention these also as reasons for their initiative.

But banning minarets is quite the wrong way. We already have means to combat such things in our legal system. Our legislation does not allow genital mutilation or sharia law.

swissinfo.ch: Opponents of minarets argue that religious freedom is trampled underfoot in Muslim countries in particular. So why don't you demand a quid pro quo from these countries?

E. W-S.: Violation of the freedom of religion – and, indeed, also of opinion – occurs not only in Muslim countries but in others as well, including Christian ones.

We are repeatedly having to speak out against this. As a humanitarian country, Switzerland has the role of ensuring that there is a lobby for the observation of these basic freedoms. We do this to the extent of our capabilities. But the fact that injustice occurs in some other country does not give us the right to be unjust too.

swissinfo.ch: The federal government says a ban on minarets would not square with some of Switzerland's core values. In what way?

E. W-S.: The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. That means not only private freedom of religion – the freedom to have one's own belief – but also public religious freedom, the freedom for people to show, through symbols, dress or through a building, which religious community they belong to.

One major aspect of the constitution is also that it forbids discrimination. If only one religious community is forbidden to build a symbol of their faith, that is discrimination.

People's initiative

The people's initiative allows every citizen to propose a modification of the constitution. To be valid it must be signed by at least 100,000 ...

swissinfo.ch: You also reject the initiative on the grounds that it violates international agreements. Has Switzerland abandoned its sovereignty?

E. W.-S.: We have signed the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. If we commit ourselves to certain treaty obligations – which we did several years ago – we have to stick to them.

swissinfo.ch: So what would happen if the initiative were adopted?

E.W-S.: Actually, I assume that it will be turned down. If we demonstrate what it can and can't do, the majority of the Swiss population would see that it is not the right way to solve any problems that might arise.

If the initiative were to be passed, then it would indeed be possible for a member of the Muslim community to file a case at the European Court of Human Rights.

The chances are high that the case would be successful, since the initiative clearly runs foul of the ECHR.

Andreas Keiser and Mohamed Cherif, swissinfo.ch (adapted from German by Robert Brookes and Julia Slater)

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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Controversial poster

A campaign poster of the supporters of the minaret ban has raised controversy in the run-up to the vote.

It shows a woman wrapped in a burka, standing by a Swiss flag over which are dotted an array of minarets.

Several towns, including Basel, Lausanne and Fribourg, have banned its display in publicly owned places.

Others, including Zurich, Lucerne and Geneva, have permitted it, arguing the right to freedom of opinion.

The Federal Commission against Racism said the posters foster prejudice and incite hatred.

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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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