Frustration abounds in Arab world over Swiss minaret ban

Frustration abounds in Arab world over Swiss minaret ban

CAIRO: Osama Yussif cheers in the early morning hours as he watches a replayed European football match. He loves European football, he says, and spends most mornings catching up on the games he missed. But, for the 48-year-old cafe manager, Europe has lost its charm as a place for all. He says that the Swiss move to ban minarets is a sign of more European hatred to come.

“It is really disappointing. My son traveled to Geneva in the 1990s and loved it. He said people were so nice and they treated him well, but that was before Islam became the enemy,” he begins. “What they are doing now is nothing good and after what has happened between us and them in recent years, it is shocking.”

He was referring to Switzerland’s move to ban minarets from its skylines. Despite calls by businessmen, religious leaders and government officials, 57 percent  of Swiss voters supported the referendum to ban Islamic minarets in the country, which is already being seen as a move against the Islamic world. For Yussif, he blames the radicalization of European society against Muslims as the cause for the ban.

“Why are they so afraid of us? They are taking their fear out on the majority of people who believe in a free society and this is really causing a lot of people to hate Europeans,” he added.

The direct democracy referendum inspired by the right-wing movement in the country, with opposition being led by the German-speaking portion of the country. There was sense that in the cities, especially Geneva, home to the United Nations offices, voters rejected the ban by nearly 60 percent.

Turnout in the vote was at 53 percent, a low number by Swiss standards. Those against the measure said this was a reflection of the apathy of young people in caring about the future of the country. But for the conservative segments of society, the vote galvanized a massive turnout, which ultimately voted for the ban.

Amnesty International said in a statement shortly after the vote on Sunday that the banning of minarets in the European country is a violation of freedom of religion and should be overturned immediately. They said that it violates the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of religious belief as established by a number of international human rights agreements to which Switzerland is a party to.

“The yes vote comes as a surprise and a great disappointment. That Switzerland, a country with a long tradition of religious tolerance and the provision of refuge to the persecuted, should have accepted such a grotesquely discriminatory proposal is shocking indeed,” said David Diaz-Jogeix, Europe and Central Asia Deputy Programme Director at Amnesty International.

On the popular social-networking site Twitter, activists and commentators were quick to argue the banning shows that “Switzerland is a racist country,” as one writer commented. They believe the move will do little to ease the growing tensions between Europe and the Islamic world, which has been at odds in recent years following the September 11 attacks, the Danish cartoon controversy and the recent murder of Egyptian Marwa el-Sherbini in a German courtroom.

Bikya Masr received an email from a man living in Switzerland who wrote “you do have to admit that it’s pretty hard to have a nap if there’s one next to your house. Be honest.” It shows that there is real support for the banning.

Ironically, there are only four minarets in existence in Switzerland and the vote means they and any future projects will be dismantled. The referendum was initiated by the nationalist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the largest group in the federal parliament, after residents opposed the construction of a minaret in Langenthal, north of Bern.

For Arabs living in Europe, the move has left them questioning why. Ismail Ezzidine, a Moroccan writer based in Paris, says that if they are going to ban minarets, “they should also ban church steeples and the bell ringing that goes on almost daily.” He argues that if the argument is truly about the annoyance of sound, then churches should be held responsible.

“If the Swiss people are arguing that they don’t want the call to prayer from four minarets, then they should also say they don’t want the bells to be ringing from the churches and ban them. If they don’t it is obviously a racist move to create tension with the Arab population,” he adds.

The vote appalled the Swiss Establishment, which had assumed on the basis of opinion polls that a substantial majority would reject the ban. “This is another blow to the world’s view of Switzerland as a nation of tolerance and civilization,” a senior Swiss diplomat was quoted as saying.

For now, at least, Arabs and Europeans are again at odds over the course of society on the continent. Although it is likely to create more tension between the Muslim minority in Europe and the majority, it will not result in further violence, says Ezzidine.

“I think we are beginning to understand that Europeans hate us, and if we are to change their attitudes, we have to start speaking logically about their abuses. If we do, the world will soon be on our side. We will see,” he says.