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Imam at the Geneva mosque, Youssef Ibram, inspects the vandalised sign of the Islamic Cultural Foundation in Geneva on Nov. 30, 2009. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
Imam at the Geneva mosque, Youssef Ibram, inspects the vandalised sign of the Islamic Cultural Foundation in Geneva on Nov. 30, 2009. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Analysis: Doug Saunders

Swiss minaret ban emboldens Europe's extremists Add to ...

If not for its dark, historic resonance, the Swiss decision to ban the construction of minarets would have seemed absurd and pointless.

In a country whose steeple-pocked landscape features exactly four of the mosque-side towers, there seemed no good reason for the far-right Swiss People's Party, which happens to be the largest party in Switzerland, to be putting the question of a mosque-building ban to the people.

But when Europe realized Monday that nearly six out of 10 Swiss voters had cast ballots Sunday night in support of the ban in an unexpected outpouring of angry sentiment aimed at Muslims, the reaction was a continent-wide shock of awareness that the darkest politics of the 20th century have not disappeared, even if Switzerland does not exactly reflect wider European views.

The shock was compounded by the sight of far-right leaders emerging from the woodwork in places like the Netherlands to push for similar bans, and by the floundering reaction of Swiss authorities.

When Swiss officials opened their mouths to explain the vote, which pollsters and many urban voters had dismissed as unwinnable, they ended up sounding eerily reminiscent of the right-wing politicians of the previous century.

"We do not forbid Islam," said People's Party Leader Ulrich Schluer, an MP from Zurich. "We forbid the political symbol of Islamization and this is the minaret … a symbol of political victory."

That rhetoric sent shivers through many Europeans. It was almost exactly 70 years before, in November of 1939, that Germans went on a rampage of destruction against synagogues, driven by almost identical rhetoric directed at Jews.

While Kristallnacht was a violent and deadly event that foretold the Holocaust to come, and Switzerland's referendum was merely an attempt at a constitutional amendment (likely to be blocked by European human-rights laws), the historical parallel was visible to many in the campaign of caricature and grotesque rhetoric aimed at the target population, including images of sacrificed animals, black-hooded women and armed terrorists.

Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, a former member of the People's Party and an opponent of the ban, said at a meeting of European Union justice ministers Monday that the vote was not "a referendum against Islam … but a vote directed against fundamentalist developments."

That a highly educated and wealthy Swiss public has come to believe that minarets are symbols of fundamentalism, or that the Muslims in their midst harbour extreme beliefs and practices, is a sign of the deep insecurity that seems to be bubbling at Europe's core.

Switzerland's Muslim population is among the most moderate, and least foreign, in Europe.

Of the country's 400,000 Muslims, representing less than 5 per cent of the population, the largest group are of European background, with ancestors from the historically Muslim Balkan countries of southeast Europe - in other words, they are as culturally and historically European as any Christian Swiss citizen.

The politics of Swiss Muslims are notably liberal and democratic, more so in many respects than the rest of the Swiss population. Burkas and other conservative head coverings are almost unknown, and there are no mosques calling for sharia law or any other form of political Islam.

And if Swiss voters came to believe that minarets are symbols of creeping fundamentalism, they were almost comically misled.

Europe's extremist mosques - including the one in Hamburg where the Sept. 11 attacks were planned, those in Madrid where the 2004 train bombings were organized and the ones in Leeds where the July 7, 2005, attacks on London took shape - are all unadorned brick buildings, reflecting the disdain held by extremists for fripperies such as minarets.

The vote took many people both inside and outside Switzerland by surprise because it comes at a moment when tensions between Muslim Europeans and the wider population are abating.

Half a decade after those tensions became intense and violent in the wake of terrorist attacks in Madrid and London, a continent-wide poll by Gallup found that Muslim attitudes toward extremism have fallen to levels indistinguishable from those of Europeans in general.

It found that 82 per cent of French Muslims and 91 per cent of German Muslims believe that violent attacks on civilians are never acceptable under any circumstances, figures similar to those in the wider population, and that the devoutly religious are no more likely to support violence now than the non-observant.

Today, the challenge to tolerance appears to be coming more from the far right in Europe, and by economically battered populations in such countries as Hungary, Austria and the Netherlands who appear more willing to support the views of these parties.

Even as European human-rights courts began attempts to block the Swiss amendment Monday, extremist politicians across Europe were examining their countries' laws to see if a similar referendum could be accomplished.

"I really would hope that other countries would follow," said Geert Wilders, head of the far-right Dutch Freedom Party, which won the second-largest number of Dutch seats in the European Parliament in this year's elections. "I will take, myself, an initiative in the Dutch parliament to also come with a resolution to try to get such a referendum against more minarets in the Netherlands as well."

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