Strolling through downtown Geneva on a cool October evening, Nadia, a 23-year-old Kosovo native, shakes her head at a provocative poster depicting a burqa-clad woman in front of a thicket of missile-shaped minarets rising out of a Swiss flag. Below the flag, the word stop is written in big, bold letters. "As a Muslim woman, I am offended by this image," says Nadia, who requested that her last name not be used. "It presents Islam as a danger to Swiss society."
That is exactly the message the poster's creators intend to convey. The image that has unsettled many of Switzerland's 310,000 Muslims is part of a campaign by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) to urge voters to approve a Nov. 29 referendum on whether to ban the construction of new minarets on mosques in the country. The party contends that more minarets only four mosques currently have them could inflame extremism and lead to a "rampant Islamization" of the country.
The issue, which has divided Switzerland, comes amid concerns over a rising anti-Muslim xenophobia in Europe and heated debate in countries such as France and Italy over the banning of other Muslim symbols like the burqa. In Switzerland, though, it's not just the referendum that has angered Muslims but also the SVP's minaret poster itself, which many opponents say incites hatred and violates the country's antiracism law. Several towns have outlawed the posters in public spaces, while other cities, like Geneva, have allowed them to be posted as a right of free expression.
"These posters are hateful and shameful," says Hafid Ouardiri, a spokesman for Geneva's Islamic Cultural Center and its mosque. "How can this happen in Switzerland, the cradle of human rights?"
Critics say the SVP, the largest party in Switzerland's coalition government, has taken advantage of the country's unique brand of direct democracy to push its populist, anti-immigrant agenda on the Swiss electorate. Citizens have the right to propose new laws in Switzerland the only thing they need to force a nationwide vote on an initiative is a petition of 100,000 signatures. "Right-wing initiatives like the minaret one can misuse the system," says Marcel Stüssi, a lecturer in human-rights law at the University of Lucerne. He says the ban, should it be approved, "would breach not only freedom of belief, expression and conscience," but also other equality and nondiscrimination laws.
The SVP is also notorious for its racially tinged campaigns. Before the 2007 parliamentary elections, the party caused an uproar by creating a poster showing three white sheep kicking a lone black one from their flock to rally support behind a proposal to deport foreigners who have repeatedly been convicted of violent crimes. The initiative has not yet been voted on in a referendum, but the party scored a major victory in the elections that year, winning 29% of the vote.
Last year, the SVP proposed another piece of legislation that would give the people, not the government, the final say in naturalization procedures. Its campaign poster depicted five dark-colored hands grabbing a stack of Swiss passports. That initiative was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls, with more than 63% of people voting no.
The question over the construction of minarets first came up in 2007 when Muslims in several Swiss towns sought permission to build the towers, which are used primarily to call Muslims to pray. Residents responded by collecting signatures to block the building plans, claiming the minarets were a symbol of Islamic power and radicalism. The four mosques in the country that already had minarets have tried to minimize their presence and the potential disruption to neighbors by not using them for prayer calls.
The SVP has taken the debate a step further, implying that minarets pose a danger to Swiss society by likening them to missiles in the posters. "Everybody understands the message expressed by these posters," SVP member Ulrich Schluehr told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in an interview last week. "That's why the opponents of a ban are against the poster and want to forbid it. They want to oppress free discussion a strength of Switzerland." Ouardiri dismisses the SVP's arguments as "bold-faced lies." "How can an architectural feature like a minaret be perceived as a threat?" he asks.
Many Swiss political parties, churches and human-rights groups are lining up against the referendum, insisting the constitutional freedom of religion must be upheld. A majority of Swiss people are also against the proposal, with 53% saying they would vote against it in a survey conducted by the gfs.berne Polling and Research Institute in late October.
Some analysts say that while the deeper issue of Muslims' assimilation into Swiss society must be addressed, the SVP's confrontational tactics are not the answer. "The dialogue is important because it alleviates fears and suspicion," says Stephane Lathion, president of the Group of Researchers on Islam in Switzerland and author of a book on the minaret debate. "But is provocation the only way to raise this sensitive issue and bring about tangible solutions?"
If anything, the missile-shaped minarets have only made many Swiss Muslims feel more alienated in their adopted country, regardless of how the vote goes this month.