Swiss Voters To Decide Whether To Ban New Minarets

Switzerland holds a referendum on Sunday to decide whether to amend the country's constitution to ban the construction of minarets. Those are the slender towers attached to most mosques that are traditionally used to make or broadcast the Muslim call to prayer. The far right Swiss People's Party claims the minarets symbolize a politicized Islam. Opponents say the measure is a thinly veiled attack against the country's law-abiding Muslim citizens.

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Switzerland is famous for its mountain vistas. And it's about to decide whether minarets can be part of its cityscapes. Minarets are those slender towers attached to many mosques. They are traditionally used for the Muslim call to prayer.

The Swiss People's Party, which is on the far right, is sponsoring a referendum to ban the construction of minarets, claiming they're a symbol of politicized Islam. Opponents of the measure say it's a thinly veiled attack against law-abiding Muslims. Eleanor Beardsley sent us this report.

(Soundbite of call to prayer)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: For the last 30 years, the call to prayer has resonated five times a day at Geneva's mosque. The chant is not played from a loudspeaker attached to the minaret but sung by a muezzin in an interior courtyard of the stately sandstone-colored mosque. Only four of Switzerland's 200 mosques even have minarets, and they aren't allowed to broadcast the call to prayer. That's why the ballot initiative to ban them has stunned Swiss Muslims.

Mr. HAFID OUARDIRI (Spokesman, Islamic Cultural Center): The Muslims here have no problem with the Swiss population or with the Swiss government. So we are shocked.

BEARDSLEY: That's Hafid Ouardiri, former spokesman of the Geneva mosque, who today heads a Muslim interfaith community organization. He says Muslims consider themselves law-abiding citizens like everyone else and don't understand what they consider an attack on their faith.

Mr. OUARDIRI: It's not the minaret is a goal. The goal is Muslims and Islam. And this extreme party is using the Muslims and Islam to show that they are the protector of the Christian culture, Christian religion. It's not even a problem between Muslims and Swiss. It's a Swiss-Swiss problem.

Every day we receive, you know, mail, and they send things like this, pictures, you know.

BEARDSLEY: Opening some hate mail, Ouardiri pulls out a cartoon drawing of a woman clad in a black burqa in front of a Swiss flag dotted with missile-shaped minarets. That same drawing looks out from posters all over the city, part of what Ouardiri calls the Swiss People Party's scare campaign.

He also suspects the party is behind the pranksters who recently blasted the call to prayer from car stereo speakers while riding through a quiet neighborhood at dawn.

Switzerland's 400,000 Muslims make up about five percent of the country's population. Most of them are from the Balkans, not the Middle East, and a large majority are considered non-practicing. Churches, synagogues and civic organizations have joined in to fight the initiative to ban minarets.

President HANS-RUDOLF MERZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: In a recent televised address, Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz called for respect and human decency as he asked voters to reject the initiative.

In Switzerland's capital of Bern, many say the debate is hurting the country's image abroad, and in this nation of watchmakers and traditional craftsmen there is fear that it could endanger export industries. In the back of everyone's mind is the Danish cartoon scandal of two years ago, when the Muslim world boycotted the small Scandinavian country over its perceived anti-Islamic message.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Inside the Swiss parliament, legislators are finalizing all the ballot initiatives that will be voted on Sunday. Oskar Freysinger is one of the leaders of the Swiss People's Party. He says he's not worried about a backlash, because the minaret initiative is taking aim at political Islam, not religious Islam.

Mr. OSKAR FREYSINGER (Swiss People's Party): The minaret is a problem because it always has been used in the history of Islam to mark the political advance of an Islam which has not made separation between church and state. It has not accepted the equality of women. I have not a problem with the Muslims which accept that our civil right is above the religious dogma, but we have to protect our civil society and to avoid an Islam which is not really compatible with our way of living.

BEARDSLEY: Recent polls predict the Swiss will vote against the minaret initiative. Nevertheless, it has plunged the country into weeks of debate about religion, race, tolerance and terrorism. Muslim community leader Ouardiri says that debate has been hurtful. Whether the initiative passes or not, he says, Muslims won't feel as welcome as they once did in Switzerland.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley.

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