May 25, 2007 / 2:07 PM / 10 years ago

Swiss reputation for tolerance under threat

<p>Firemen and policemen at Geneva's Hekhal Haness synagogue, destroyed by fire early May 24, 2007. Switzerland's reputation as a haven of tolerance for immigrants has been undermined in recent weeks by calls for a ban on new minarets, a mysterious synagogue blaze and neo-Nazi threats to disrupt national day celebrations.Denis Balibouse</p>

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland's reputation as a haven of tolerance for immigrants has been undermined in recent weeks by calls for a ban on new minarets, a mysterious synagogue blaze and neo-Nazi threats to disrupt national day celebrations.

Switzerland is known for public order and efficiency. Its neutral status and high living standards, as well as its need for lower cost workers, have historically attracted refugees from conflicts around Europe and the world.

But with rising immigration -- and lack of integration caused partly by tight laws on handing out Swiss passports -- religious and ethnic tension has been on the rise, particularly focusing on Muslims.

"There is always this feeling that Switzerland is a little island and you daren't let anything in because it will destabilize it," said Clive Church, an expert on Swiss politics, recently retired from the University of Kent.

By the end of 2005, more than a fifth of Switzerland's 7.5 million residents were foreigners, a higher proportion than in any other European country except Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, according to the Federal Statistics Office.

Most of those are from Europe, with large communities from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, many of those Muslims who fled the conflicts there.

"Radical Islam is a huge foreign political factor," said Swiss culture and politics expert Jonathan Steinberg of the University of Pennsylvania. "None of the immigration before constituted an international threat. Now they do."

Foreigners accounted for more than 40 percent of registered jobless in April, according to government figures.

MINARET BAN?

A group of right-wing Swiss politicians has launched a campaign to ban the construction of minarets, claiming they are a symbol of power and threaten law and order.

The attempt to launch a national referendum on minarets has triggered widespread criticism but also attracted some support.

"There's no doubt that the attack on the minarets is part of a larger picture of Islamophobia," said Church, who said the backlash -- if the ban became law -- could be comparable to a storm of protest last year caused by cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad first published in Denmark.

Meanwhile organizers have threatened to cancel Switzerland's traditional national day celebration on August 1 due to threats by right-wing groups to disrupt the event.

Neo-Nazis have disrupted the ceremony in recent years and shouted down then-President Samuel Schmid in 2005.

And this week, police suspected arson in a fire that destroyed Geneva's largest synagogue, although they have not ruled out an accidental blaze.

"Right extremism in Switzerland ... is a political and social reality," said a recent Racism in Switzerland report by the Zurich-based Foundation Against Racism and Anti-Semitism. "Although this movement remains marginal, it has never been as strong numerically since 1945."

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