Shock At Swiss Vote To Ban Minarets

The Swiss government is struggling to reassure its Muslim citizens following the results of a referendum Sunday in which voters agreed to ban the construction of minarets throughout the country. The vote was particularly embarrassing for the government, which had campaigned heavily against the measure.

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To Switzerland now and a surprising victory for that country's political right. Voters agreed Sunday to ban the construction of minarets - those are the spires built on or near many mosques, which can be used to call Muslims to prayer. The Swiss government recognized the vote as democratic and binding. But as Eleanor Beardsley reports, it is struggling to reassure its Muslim citizens.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The vote was expected to be close but the measure was never expected to pass. Yet, in the end, more than 57 percent of voters decided that minarets are not welcome in Switzerland. The referendum was put forward by the far right Swiss People's Party. Critics say the party's aggressive campaign stirred up xenophobia and fear. Their ominous posters, which papered Swiss cities, showed a burqa-clad woman in front of a Swiss flag with minarets rising up like missiles. The Swiss People's Party claims minarets are a symbol of a political Islam that is trying to get a foothold in Switzerland.

Party leader Oskar Freysinger says the vote's message is clear.

Mr. OSKAR FREYSINGER (Leader, Swiss People's Party): You can practice your religion in your mosque, no problem. But don't interfere with our legal system. That's, in fact, the only message we have given. If they have understood it, we won't have any problem.

BEARDSLEY: Freysinger says the minaret ban will keep Switzerland from heading down the same path as countries like Britain and France which, he says, struggle with Muslim populations living in their own parallel societies and with their own laws.

Unidentified Male: Foreign language spoken.

BEARDSLEY: Tiny Switzerland sent shockwaves throughout Europe today. In France, which has Western Europe's largest Muslim population, the Swiss vote was covered extensively on television. One channel took an online poll over whether France should have its own debate about minarets. Seventy-five percent of the respondents said yes. One Belgian newspaper asked: Are we next?

The angry campaign and the outcome of the referendum came as a rude shock to Swiss Muslims who are generally considered well-integrated into society. The majority hail from the Balkans and Turkey and do not adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with the conservative Islam of the Middle East.

(Soundbite of Muslim prayer)

Switzerland has two hundred mosques and cultural centers but only four minarets. And Swiss minarets are for decoration because the call to prayer is sung by a muezzin only inside the mosque. The vote was particularly embarrassing for the Swiss government which had campaigned heavily against it. Swiss Foreign Minister Evelyn Widmer-Schlumpf tried to play down its impact today.

Ms. EVELYN WIDMER-SCHLUMPF (Swiss Foreign Minister): It interprets as result of the reaction of fears towards everything who is coming from abroad. It's not a rejection of the Muslim community in Switzerland because the Muslim community is well-integrated and would be able to continue to pray every Friday.

BEARDSLEY: Swiss human rights organizations called the vote a great disappointment in a country with a long tradition of religious tolerance.

(Soundbite of music)

BEARDSLEY: After the referendum vote Sunday night, a crowd gathered in front of the Swiss parliament in Bern. As a violin played, many held placards that read: This is not my Switzerland. Eva Baungarden(ph) who spoke to Swiss World Radio said she was ashamed of her country.

Ms. EVA BAUNGARDEN: I'm not afraid of the different cultures. I'm not afraid of the Muslims. But I am afraid of people of my country who are so, I don't know, narrow-minded. Why are we afraid? What's our trouble?

BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley.

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