Swiss anti-Islam vote draws protests from Jews and Christians

Poster in Zurich backing the referendum banning the construction of mosque minarets that won handily in Switzerland. (Rytc / Creative Commons)

Poster in Zurich backing the referendum banning the construction of mosque minarets that won handily in Switzerland. (Rytc / Creative Commons)

BUDAPEST (JTA) — Swiss voters may have been taking aim at Islam, but Jewish and Catholic leaders are among those crying foul.

Jewish organizations have joined Muslims, the Vatican and other groups in warning that a Swiss referendum banning the construction of mosque minarets could fuel hatred, jeopardize religious freedom and further polarize an already divided society.

“Discriminatory laws like a ban on minarets are likely to alienate rather than ease integration,” the Board of Deputies of British Jews said in a statement following the Nov. 29 vote. “They also give succor to the unacceptable politics of unlimited hate being peddled around Europe by right-wing extremists.”

France’s chief rabbi also criticized the vote, as did two influential U.S. Jewish organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee. Both the Swiss government and Switzerland’s Jewish community had strongly opposed the initiative.

Called by the far-right Swiss People’s Party — the country’s largest political party — the referendum won the support of nearly 58 percent of voters. The result, which stunned many observers, mandates a constitutional ban on the construction of minarets, or prayer towers, on newly built mosques.

The referendum is the latest round in a series of ongoing debates and controversies over how to deal with a growing Muslim population in Europe. In France, there have been sharp debates over whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear veils in public schools. And in the past few years, anti-immigrant protesters have demonstrated against the building of mosques in Germany, Italy and elsewhere in Western Europe.

Posters backing the Swiss referendum had blatantly played on fears of Islamist extremism. Some showed a sinister, black-veiled figure in front of black minarets arrayed to look like missiles rising out of a Swiss flag.

Martin Baltisser, the general secretary of the Swiss People’s Party, told the BBC, "This was a vote against minarets as symbols of Islamic power."

About 400,000 Muslims live in Switzerland in a population of 7.5 million. Four mosques in the country have minarets.

Many Muslims in Switzerland are refugees from the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. During those wars, Orthodox Serb and Catholic Croat fighters deliberately targeted hundreds of mosques for destruction.

In a joint statement ahead of the vote, the two main Swiss Jewish umbrella groups opposed the measure.

"Precisely because the Jewish community has firsthand experience of discrimination, it is committed to active opposition to discrimination and to action in favor of religious freedom and peaceful relations between the religions," the two Swiss Jewish groups declared.

Swiss Jewry, the statement said, "takes seriously the fears of the population that extremist ideas could be disseminated in Switzerland. But banning minarets is no solution — it only creates in Muslims in Switzerland a sense of alienation and discrimination."

The results of the referendum drew widespread criticism from the Vatican, Muslim leaders, the United Nations and other political and religious bodies around the world.

Jewish criticism focused on concern that the crackdown on Muslims could foster extremism and harm efforts to integrate Muslim communities. But Jewish leaders also warned of possible repercussions for Jews and other minorities.

“For the Swiss People’s Party, as for all far-right parties in Europe, any group that is different in terms of its appearance or its language or its cultural or religious traditions is regarded as a target," said David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. "We stand firmly against these rabble-rousing politics in the name of pluralism and democracy.”

The Anti-Defamation League slammed the referendum as "a populist political campaign of religious intolerance."

“This is not the first time a Swiss popular vote has been used to promote religious intolerance," the ADL said in a statement. "A century ago, a Swiss referendum banned Jewish ritual slaughter in an attempt to drive out its Jewish population. We share the … concern that those who initiated the anti-minaret campaign could try to further erode religious freedom through similar means."

France’s Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim called on leaders of "all religions" to work for "dialogue and openness."

Bernhiem and others recalled that until Jews were granted civil rights, European rulers often had imposed bans or regulations on the size or visibility of synagogues, frequently forbidding synagogues to stand taller than local churches.

"In many buildings in Budapest you find prayer rooms or synagogues hidden away in courtyards — you can’t see them from the outside," said Mircea Cernov, who heads Haver, a foundation in the Hungarian capital that promotes education and dialogue between Jews and non-Jews.

Cernov joined Bernheim in calling for dialogue rather than legal restrictions to tackle the issue of the growing Muslim presence in Europe.

"The moment something is a formal restriction, debate and critical response to the issue is closed," Cernov said. "This can lead in a very short time to a polarization or radicalization of the question."

Philip Carmel, spokesman for the Conference of European Rabbis, also stressed the need for dialogue rather than restrictions. He said the group’s rabbis at their recent conference in Moscow had condemned the posters supporting the referendum.

"It is not by banning minarets that one combats Islamic fundamentalism in Europe,” Carmel said, “but by engaging in serious dialogue with moderate forces within Islam to build a united and democratic Europe."

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