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World's press dissect Swiss minaret ban

One newspaper said the result should give pause to thought to those who try to play down the populist factor of popular votes

(Reuters)

The Swiss vote to ban minarets reflects the fears of many Europeans but has tarnished the country's reputation, many international commentators believe.

"The irrational fear of Islam has struck once again in Europe," said the French Libération newspaper in an editorial headed "Absurd".

"The ban on minarets has cast a sudden pall on the image of a country which is used to the peaceful coexistence of religions," it commented.

Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung says the Swiss People's Party – which backed the ban - managed to make a mountain out of a molehill. The paper points out that less than five per cent of the Swiss population are Muslim, and they are mostly well integrated. "Where difficulties with Muslims do exist, they can't be solved by banning minarets."

The Times newspaper of London deplores the vote and sees it as a blow against the principles on which European societies are built.

"In the name of defending the principles of a constitutional society against religious intolerance, Swiss voters have adopted intolerance. That is more than a paradox: it is a calumny," it says.

Reasons

Commentators have various theories as to why the Swiss in particular should have voted this way.

Britain's Guardian newspaper writes of "an Alpine distrust of outsiders which lapsed into racism".

Austria's Kurier explains the vote in part by Switzerland's ongoing dispute with Libya saying that some voters will have taken out their frustration with Moammar Gaddafi by voting to ban a symbol of the Muslim faith.

Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung describes the vote as one of "anger and frustration", coming after the bank secrecy affair and the crisis with Libya.

No isolated case

Even if there were specific Swiss considerations, many papers are well aware that a similar vote would probably go the same way elsewhere.

"Many of the things that drove yesterday's vote – growing opposition to migration, the rise of the far right, widespread hatred and fear of Islam – apply just as much to other European countries, including Britain," admits the Guardian.

Kurier believes that a similar vote in Austria would have similar results.

"People do have worries, they do have a fear of what is foreign and not understood. Only if we dare to admit that this is the case, can we hope to find solutions," it comments.

The same is true of Germany, according to the Stuttgarter Zeitung. "Who would put their hand in the fire and say that a popular vote here would not have produced a similar result?" it asks.

"The Swiss vote is a wake-up call for the whole of Europe. No government in the continent has yet satisfactorily regulated its relations with the Muslim religion," says Libération. The paper believes the only possible strategy is to encourage the emergence of a European Islam able to accommodate its faith with the culture of human rights.

The Italian Repubblica also thinks it is time for new, more forceful policies.

"Appeals couched in general terms in favour of dialogue and the recognition of pluralism are not enough to counter xenophobic excesses," it says. "We need pragmatic public policies able to produce cohesion, security and freedom all at the same time."

Outside Europe, the Wall Street Journal commented that the vote highlighted "the persistent conflict over the integration of Europe's growing Muslim population into civil society".

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 ...

Fear of backlash

The New York Times warns that Switzerland is now "at the forefront of a European backlash against a growing Muslim population".

"Business groups said the decision hurt Switzerland's international standing and could damage relations with Muslim nations and wealthy investors who bank, travel and shop there," it says.

It is not only economic repercussions that many papers fear.

The Jakarta Globe, published in the world's biggest Muslim-majority country, quoted the head of the country's largest Muslim group, Maskuri Abdillah as saying the vote was a "manifestation of religious hatred", but calling for calm.

"We should show them tolerance and the freedom of religion," he tells his followers.

The German news magazine Der Spiegel says that "international Switzerland" will face great problems in a number of areas. "For Muslim countries it will also damage Switzerland's credibility as a mediator," it warns.

The nature of Switzerland's unique direct democracy is also a source of comment.

"The message of this first day of Advent goes beyond the borders of Switzerland. The result should give pause to thought to those who try to play down the populist factor of popular votes," said the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

However, an opinion piece in London's Daily Telegraph enthused about Switzerland's system of direct democracy. "I felt rather cheered when I heard that the Swiss had voted as they did, for the simple and sufficient reason that I like it when people don't do what they're told by politicians," wrote Melanie McDonagh.

Arab reaction

Much of the press in the Arab and Islamic world – where Monday is a major Muslim religious holiday – confined itself to quoting international news agencies.

In Lebanon the as-Safir daily carried the headline: "Islamaphobia has conquered the country of plurality", while another Lebanese paper, an-Nahar said the vote had placed Swiss voters "on the front line of confrontation in Europe"

The Islam Online website wrote of a "shock" for Muslims in Switzerland, but quoted Swiss Muslim leader, Hisham Maizar calling for "wisdom" and warning that burning Swiss flags would not be helpful.

Julia Slater, swissinfo.ch

Key facts

Minaret ban - final results:
57.5% yes
42.5% no
Turnout: 53.4%
Four cantons carried out trials with e-voting. The Swiss abroad registered in Geneva and Basel City were also taking part in the scheme.

end of infobox

In brief

Switzerland has become the first European country to ban the construction of minarets.

The proposal was launched by members of the rightwing Swiss People's Party and the ultra conservative Federal Democratic Union.

The initiative came in response to opposition by conservative groups at a local level against applications to build a minaret next to a mosque.

end of infobox


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