Wilders calls for minaret referendum

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As religious leaders and politicians around speak out to condemn the Swiss referendum on the banning of minarets, right-wing Dutch MP Geert Wilders says he would welcome a similar vote in the Netherlands.

57.5 percent of Swiss voters favour an end to the construction of the towers on mosques, a result that has sparked outrage from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

France's foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said the outcome was an unacceptable “expression of intolerance”. The Vatican has joined Muslim leaders in expressing dismay and concern over the referendum.
The Swiss government itself opposed the poll (organised by the largest party in parliament, the Swiss People’s Party) but said in a statement that it accepted the decision.

Alain Deletroz, himself a Swiss national, is the director of the International Crisis Group. He told Radio Netherlands Worldwide that he thought it was a big mistake to hold a referendum like this and that he expects the rest of the world to send a tough message to Switzerland.

“There will be boycotting of Swiss exports to Muslim countries and Swiss Muslims will not stay quiet and those that have filed demands to build mosques with minarets may pursue those demands in the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg.”

Exploiting tensions
He says that in many countries in Europe politicians are exploiting religious tensions and cited Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders as an example. Mario Borghezio, a euro-MP for Italy’s Northern League has also called for a similar referendum.

“The point is the irresponsibility of some politicians. It is a disgrace that a referendum like this was even organized over a question like this,” said Mr Deletroz.

Moroccan Muslims in the Netherlands have expressed similar concern over both the result and the fact that the referendum was allowed to happen in the first place.

Cat and mouse
Mohammed El Aissati is the chairman of Stichtig Maroc, a foundation representing the Netherlands' Moroccan community. He says the reaction among his community has been one of unpleasant surprise and that the question posed was not as direct as it could have been.

“If they had asked ‘are you against freedom of religion, yes or no?’ that would have been a clear question…it’s kind of playing hide and seek…in Europe I would say if you appeal to this fear of Islam you would get the same result. I think it’s very dangerous to travel this road of giving unrealistic fears a political stage.”

Mr El Aissati says that while democracy isn’t a perfect system, it should not be abused by people who use it for their own political advantage. 

“We should have a debate about where we draw the line. In a democracy you can imagine a situation where the majority want things that are bad for human rights, or freedom of speech or religion, but are still democratically chosen or elected. I think there’s a problem there. How do we react when populist individuals abuse the system for their own gain?”

He observes in the past, parties with negative agendas have got into power by abusing the democratic system.

“I don’t have a clear answer on how to act about that. When a situation like that is happening, how should we respond to that as a society?”

While the result of this referendum may highlight the imperfections of the democratic system, the Swiss government has been struggling to contain the national and international backlash by attempting to reassure its 400,000 Muslims that the vote was not a rejection of Muslim beliefs and culture.

In the face of such a vote, it may be hard for them to read it any other way.

Listen to the Newsline interview with Mohammed El Aissati