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Swiss vote to ban minarets showcases new populism

FRANKFURT — In what many see as a major setback to Europe’s effort to integrate its booming Muslim population – and a potential boost to right-wing parties throughout the continent – Swiss voters Sunday approved a move to ban the construction of new minarets in the country.

The Swiss government had urged voters to reject the ban, saying that it would violate religious freedom and human rights and intensify Islamic radicalism. But in Sunday’s referendum, which was organized by a right-wing political party, more than 57 percent of Swiss residents – a majority in 22 out of the country’s 26’s cantons – approved the proposal.

“Muslims don’t just practice religion, they increasingly make political and legal demands,” said Walter Wobmann, who heads the initiative behind the referendum. “The vote results shows that the Swiss do not want minarets or Sharia laws in their country.”

Dangerous for democracy?
The referendum sought to stop “political Islamization” by amending the Swiss Constitution to add a clause stating “the construction of minarets is prohibited,” a move critics say is dangerous for democracy.

“Here you have a new phenomenon, attacking the basic tenets of democracy with a referendum,” says Dieter Oberndörfer, a University of Freiburg expert on Europe’s Muslims. “Freedom of religious creed, the right for everybody to practice their religion, that’s a basic tenet of democracy,”

In Switzerland, just as in neighboring Germany, the right of all religious groups to have a place of prayer is guaranteed by the Constitution.

More mosques, more problems
Across Europe, as Islam has become the continent’s fastest growing religion, Muslims have established their public presence by building visible mosques with minarets, ending decades of practicing in hiding, in basements in courtyards.

In neighboring Germany, only a handful of mosques a decade ago have swollen to 164, and 200 are under construction, according to Claus Leggewie of Germany’s Giessen University, co-author of “Mosques in Germany – religious home and societal challenge.” In Switzerland, too, the Muslim community has been growing, making up roughly 6 percent of Switzerland’s 7.5 million.

Although major mosque projects from Cologne, Germany to Amsterdam to Seville, Spain, originally met with fierce opposition and fear, increasingly they are the result of a consensus between Muslim associations and local political governments, says Mr. Leggewie.

Populism on the rise?
But beneath the religious issue, Sunday’s vote is the expression of something deeper, says Leggewie.

“In many ways, it’s only the projection of a strong alienation of the public with its political elite,” he says. “That’s exactly where populism steps in. This is not about religion. It’s not about Islam. It’s a classic immigration issue.”

The decision, Leggewie and others agree, could feed right-wing movements, particularly in smaller countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and Austria.

“This is like a virus,” says Leggewie. “It is another failure of European citizens to integrate its foreigners. There’s a real problem.”

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