By Julie Schindall
In a surprise turn of events that polls did not predict, Swiss voters strongly approved (57.5 percent) a popular initiative to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland November 30.
The initiative, driven by the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP), marks another step in the country's heated debate over foreigners and particularly Muslim residents who come mainly from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia (see Switzerland's Non-EU Immigrants: Their Integration and Swiss Attitudes for more details).
In the case of the anti-minaret initiative, however, the legislation may not stand. Amnesty International warned ahead of the vote that passage of the minaret ban would constitute religious discrimination under the European Human Rights Convention, which Switzerland ratified in 1974.
Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf called the initiative a "proxy war" against fears of rising Islamic fundamentalism and Shariah law and not actually a verdict against minarets.
Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey told Le Temps newspaper of Geneva that the vote was not a rejection of Switzerland's Muslim community. In a time of economic crisis, Calmy-Rey said, "It was easy to play on fears... The initiative was manipulated by a party represented in the government. It's irresponsible and I regret it."
Calmy-Rey's job is about to get much harder. Since the vote, Switzerland has faced intense media, political, and popular criticism.
Maskuri Abdillah,the leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim group, called the vote "a manifestation of religious hatred."
UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Asma Jahangir, said the initiative was "clear discrimination" against Muslims in Switzerland.
Swiss voters against the ban have taken to the streets. In the capital Bern, 1,500 people marched in a mock funeral procession from the main train station to the plaza in front of the federal parliament.
To take a step back from the heated polemics of the issue, the vote also sheds critical light on Switzerland's unique direct democracy system. Any Swiss citizen can propose a modification to the Swiss constitution. If a committee of citizens — allied as a political party, community association, or a group specifically assembled to propose the initiative — gathers 100,000 signatures within 18 months, the initiative will come to a national vote.
That's what happened with the minaret ban. The Swiss lower house of parliament actually voted against the ban earlier this year. In the direct democracy system, however, parliament's rejection of an initiative does not impact the final passage of the law: only the people can decide.
The only exception in which the initiative will not come to a national vote is if parliament decides the initiative violates international law. For the anti-minaret initiative, parliament did not make that decision.
As legions of voters and politicians against the ban have told the media, Swiss voters cast their ballots based on fear, not cool-headed logic.
In a country characterized by compromise since its confederation in 1848, the Swiss government is typically even-keeled and perhaps even a little slow. But the Swiss people can cast an emotional a ballot, even though they traditionally dislike rowdy political contests.
The far-right political parties that backed the initiative proved to be well-mobilized. Swiss voters turned out in higher-than-usual numbers, which could have contributed to the surprise result. A leading polling organization in Switzerland predicted 53 percent disapproval of the initiative in the weeks leading up to the vote.
The head of the gfs.bern polling institute, Claude Longchamp, also told Swiss television that voters may have lied to pollsters about their true voting intentions on such a divisive and inflammatory topic.