x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Turkey angry over Swiss ban on minarets

Outcome of vote in Switzerland could strengthen hand of those in Turkey who want Ankara to scale back its ties with EU.

ISTANBUL // Turkey yesterday expressed dismay at the ban on the building of minarets in Switzerland, seen as yet another example of rejection by Europe that could further weaken Ankara's EU enthusiasm. "This is an outdated approach in the middle of Europe," Ertugrul Gunay, Turkey's culture and tourism minister, told reporters in televised remarks. In the referendum in Switzerland on Sunday, a 57.5-per-cent majority voted in favour of a ban on new minarets in the country. "Switzerland is a country that lies within Europe but has not internalised Europe" with its democratic values, the minister added. He said he was against holding "a referendum on matters of religious freedom".

"Every religious structure has its symbols," Mr Gunay said. "A minaret or a church tower is an inseparable part of such a structure." The minister said he had hoped for a "more tolerant attitude" by Switzerland. He said he expected reactions from Muslim nations, which could include economic steps against Switzerland. Representatives of Turks living in Switzerland also expressed anger. "The result is really shocking, a catastrophe," Ramazan Gun, a leading member of the Federation of Turkish Associations in Western Switzerland, told the Turkish NTV news channel. "It raises the question how people who do not even have respect for buildings made of stone can have respect for other people," Mr Gun said.

About 120,000 of the 350,000 Muslims living in Switzerland are Turks, with Bosnians and Kosovars forming other big national groups. One of the four existing minarets of mosques in Switzerland is part of a Turkish cultural centre, according to press reports. Many Turkish newspapers carried the news of the referendum result on their front pages. "Racists saying 'first come the minarets, then the Sharia' have won," ran a headline in the daily newspaper Vatan. The Star newspaper said the referendum result was a "victory for Islamophobia" in Europe.

As a Muslim country applying for membership in the European Union that has often been chided by Brussels for failing to guarantee the rights of religious minorities, Turkey is very sensitive to developments in Europe that smack of double standards. "Switzerland has failed the tolerance test," the newspaper Bugun said on its front page. Beril Dedeoglu, a political scientist and expert on Turkish-EU relations at Istanbul's Galatasaray University, said the outcome of the vote in Switzerland could strengthen the hand of those in Turkey who want Ankara to scale back its ties with the European Union and concentrate on strengthening the Turkish role in the Middle East. Enthusiasm for the county's EU bid has dropped considerably in recent years, as EU leaders Germany and France have said publicly that they are against taking Turkey in.

"It will increase the perception of discrimination," Mr Dedeoglu said, adding that for most people in Turkey it did not matter that Switzerland is not an EU member state because the country is being seen as a part of Europe. "One aspect is that it will strengthen similar movements all over Europe. Another aspect is that it will have people in Turkey saying that 'they don't want us anyway because we are Muslims and that all demands for reform are just an excuse'," for not accepting Turkey's EU application.

That development could have consequences for Turkey's relations with Europe in the future, Mr Dedeoglu said. "The logic is: Let's drop the EU business and expand relations in our own region. There is an inclination for that in the government already anyway." Several newspapers reported that Switzerland may be in for boycott movements in Muslim countries as a consequence of the vote. The Zaman newspaper quoted unnamed officials of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, or OIC, an umbrella group consisting of 57 member countries and headed by a Turkish secretary general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, as saying that the referendum had disappointed the Islamic world. "It is a worrying development," the officials said, according to the newspaper.

But Saim Yeprem, an Islamic scholar in Turkey, said boycotts and other forms of protests would be the wrong reaction. "I think the problem stems from the fact that society [in Switzerland] does not know enough about Islam," Mr Yeprem told NTV. "Instead of protesting, the Islamic world should present Islam with all its most beautiful examples." Kahraman Tunaboylu, the president of the Turkish community in Switzerland, agreed. "We have to enlighten people here and in Europe about Islam," he told NTV. "Whatever we have done in the past, it was not enough."

Mr Tunaboylu said the result of the referendum would not have many concrete consequences in every day life "because most of our mosques do not have minarets anyway". But efforts to bring Muslim migrants and the Swiss closer together would suffer. "Integration will slow down," he said. tseibert@thenational.ae