BERLIN // Switzerland voted in favour of banning the construction of minarets in a national referendum yesterday that has dealt a blow to the country's international reputation and alarmed its 350,000 Muslims. Official results showed a surprisingly clear majority of voters - 57.5 per cent - backed the initiative brought by supporters of the anti-immigrant Swiss People's Party and a smaller far-right party. They had argued that minarets are a symbol of a Muslim quest to suppress the rights of others and to introduce Shariah, and that banning them would help stop an "Islamisation" of the small Alpine state. International concern about the initiative increased after the launch last month of a campaign poster that was widely criticised as xenophobic: it featured a woman peering menacingly out of a black niqab in front of a mass of black minarets jutting like missiles out of the Swiss national flag. "This will definitely damage Switzerland's international reputation," Hisham Maizar, the president of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland, said in an interview. "I doubt whether the decision can be implemented because it's probably illegal and the European Court of Human Rights is certain to take action against this. "If the result has a negative impact on our everyday lives as Muslims, this country will feel our opposition. We will not allow ourselves to be severely curtailed in our religious freedom. It's a setback for all those who tried to promote inter-religious dialogue." The most recent opinion polls had indicated that voters would narrowly reject the initiative. Both the Swiss government and parliament opposed it and warned that it would violate the constitution and freedom of religion. The United Nations human rights monitor had also voiced concerns. But the outcome is binding. Referendums are a cornerstone of the unique democratic system in this small, fiercely neutral country where women won the right to vote in federal elections only in 1971. The Swiss government is worried that the result will seriously harm the export-oriented economy, famous for its luxury goods and secretive banks, by deterring Muslim customers. Some Swiss commentators warned that it could provoke the same sort of backlash in the Muslim world that the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed printed in Danish newspapers did in 2005.
Switzerland's reputation has already suffered from growing accusations that it is a haven for tax evaders. And it has been embroiled in a dispute with Libya, formerly a close trading partner, after the son and daughter-in-law of the Libyan leader, Muammar Qadafi, were briefly detained during a visit to Geneva last year. Mr Maizar said the minaret ban would probably not spark the kind of backlash that followed the Danish cartoons because the Swiss government had made its opposition to the petition very clear in meetings with international Islamic representatives. The petition and strong backing for it are surprising given that Switzerland's Muslim population is relatively small, generally regarded as well integrated into society, and quite secular. Muslims make up less than five per cent of the 7.5 million inhabitants. Most of them come from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. According to Mr Maizar, Switzerland does not have the parallel communities that exist in neighbouring Germany, which has about four million Muslims. Switzerland has about 160 mosques. Most of them are in the form of inconspicuous prayer rooms in cellars and halls. Only four mosques have minarets. The ban applies to constructing any further minarets. The initiative originated from local opposition to plans by Muslim communities to build small minarets on mosques in the towns of Wangen, Langenthal and Wil. Walter Wobmann, president of a committee of initiative backers, said the vote marked an "uncompromising rejection of any attempt to implement elements of Shariah law in Switzerland". "Attempts to thwart the decision by appealing to the European Court of Justice would be in breach of the Swiss constitution," he said. The Swiss People's Party, the country's biggest party, welcomed the result. "The vote for the ban shows that Swiss voters have taken a clear stance against the creation of parallel societies through an increasing expansion of Islam in Switzerland," the party said. "Our laws have to apply to everyone. Immigration must be controlled. Those who don't obey our laws must leave the country." Mr Maizar said the vote was a setback for Muslim immigrants. "Many people who voted for this initiative may have done so because they felt threatened by the images they see on the television news such as international acts of terrorism, and because they associate this with Islam and Muslims." The centre-right Neuer Zürcher Zeitung, Switzerland's leading quality newspaper, criticised the result. "It is likely to damage social cohesion and Switzerland's already dented reputation," the newspaper wrote in an editorial. "And the public's basically frightened reaction to the emergence of a new religious minority doesn't show confidence in the much-vaunted values of human rights, equality and enlightenment."