PARIS (Reuters) - Switzerland’s vote to ban minarets is the blunt expression of wider worries about Islam in Europe, but the typically Swiss option of holding a national debate and referendum on them looks unlikely to be repeated elsewhere.
Minarets already grace hundreds of mosques built across the continent in recent decades as immigration swelled the Muslim population — now estimated at around 15-18 million — to the point that Islam has become the second faith in some countries.
Thousands more have no minaret or only a small symbolic one, either because these mosques were set up in existing buildings or because local authorities limited the towers’ height.
The minaret’s power to polarize derives from its perceived role as a statement of Muslim domination. Very few in Europe are used to issue the call to prayer common in Islamic countries.
Far-right minority parties use minarets to fan popular fears but many European officials have come to accept them as long as they fit into the local surroundings.
In France, whose 5-million Muslim minority is Europe’s largest, the heated debates over mosques in recent decades have mostly given way to pragmatic deals about minarets’ height. Large central mosques are under construction in several cities.
“The idea of a referendum to ban minarets in France is unthinkable,” said Said Branine, editor-in-chief of the Muslim news website Oumma.com in Paris. “But the extreme right wing will try to exploit the Swiss vote politically.”
“The specifically Swiss aspect lies in the voting system, which calls on voters to decide issues that are not presented in this way elsewhere,” Swiss Islam specialist Patrick Haenni told the French daily Le Monde.
Italian sociologist Stefano Allievi said in a recent report that conflicts over Islam could grow as Europe becomes more diverse but the longer-term trend was toward more integration.
This can be seen now in France, where a parliamentary panel is studying a proposed ban on full facial veils, known as burqas and niqabs, but its chairman admitted two weeks ago that it would not recommend outlawing them.
At the same time, the far-right National Front’s deputy leader Marine Le Pen has seized on the Swiss vote to say Europeans “reject the ostentatious and often provocative signs of politico-religious Muslim groups.”
Branine said the National Front would stress this in its campaign for regional polls in March to win back conservative voters who backed Nicolas Sarkozy’s tough law-and-order line in his presidential election campaign two years ago.
Allievi noted in his report that mosque building has become fairly routine in France. Marseille recently gave the green light for a large “cathedral mosque” and builders put the cupola onto Strasbourg’s new grand mosque last week.
Britain’s emphasis on multiculturalism and religious rights “have contributed to creating a climate conducive to the presence and visibility of Islam,” he wrote.
Germany has more mosques than any other European country but Bosnia and has been relatively open to minarets, Allievi said.
There were several far-right protests and heated debates about a large mosque planned in Cologne but the project — including two thin Ottoman-style minarets 55 meters (yards) high — is now going ahead with support from the city government.
The increased hostility toward Islam after September 11, 2001 has been more evident in mosque debates in other European countries where Muslim communities are more recent.
Minarets are banned in two Austrian provinces but allowed elsewhere. Italy’s Northern League has paraded pigs over mosque building sites to desecrate them.
Despite an increase in anti-Muslim feeling, Allievi wrote, the Netherlands “remains a country remarkably open to a variety of places of worship, including those for Muslims.” Belgium has a strong far-right but follows pragmatic policies for mosques.
“Conflict is less intense and less frequent where Muslims enjoy more rights (and) more intense and more frequent where political entrepreneurs of Islamophobia are present,” he wrote.
But headline-grabbing talk of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West “contrasts oddly with the long-term trends of the Islamic presence in Europe — a gradual move toward integration and institutionalization.”
Editing by Jon Boyle