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Comment: The call from the Swiss minaret

The stunning success of the popular initiative to ban minarets in Switzerland has turned heads around the world. But what does it really mean for Swiss Muslims, and what are the implications and lessons for other European countries? From a strictly legal point of view, the construction of minarets is now prohibited in Switzerland. No further legislation is required to implement this constitutional provision and there is nothing that federal or cantonal authorities can do to challenge it. The only avenue for Swiss Muslims to overturn the ban is through the courts the next time an application to construct a mosque is rejected because of it. Such a challenge will no doubt not be long in coming. It should also be successful. As a great many Swiss and international legal experts have said, the ban is clearly inconsistent with Switzerland's obligations under international law to respect the freedom of religion and not to discriminate on the grounds of religious belief. Even if the Swiss Federal Supreme Court does not reject the law, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg almost certainly will. In the meantime, however, the ban will remain in force. And much harm will already have been done. The popularity of the ban — even more than the measure itself — will damage relations between Switzerland's small Muslim minority and the rest of the population. Extremists on all sides will take encouragement. The integration of Swiss Muslims, the necessary two-way process of respect and adaptation, will inevitably suffer. The success of the referendum brings with it some long, hard lessons for the Swiss authorities that other European countries and political leaders would also do well to heed. First, xenophobic and, specifically, Islamophobic sentiment is much more widespread than even the most pessimistic observers had thought. Opinion polls in the run-up to the referendum consistently showed a majority of voters to be opposed to the ban. How wrong they were. In the privacy of the voting booth, silent prejudices found their voice. The situation is probably similar across Europe; the success of far-right parties in the recent European Parliament elections certainly suggests so. Indeed, the only surprise in Switzerland was how surprised we were. Second, the failure of civil society and the leading mainstream political parties to campaign aggressively against the referendum was clearly a big mistake. With lower levels of popular prejudice, the reluctance to engage and give air-time to xenophobic views by debating and challenging them might have worked. It did not in Switzerland. The absence of vocal, united and consistent opposition to the initiative clearly left the terrain free for the fear-mongering and exaggeration that Islamophobic ideologues thrive on. Other countries should not make the same mistake. Already, calls are being made for similar policies in other European countries. The success of Swiss referendum must, therefore, serve as a wake up call not just for Switzerland, but for the rest of Europe too. Much more comprehensive measures are needed, across Europe, to combat discrimination and promote the integration of Muslim and immigrant communities. A much greater commitment is needed from political leaders, from civil society — from all moderate, tolerant voices — to expose, confront and counter xenophobic views. Complacence is complicity. The cost of failure is huge. Intolerance lies at the heart of Europe's most ubiquitous human rights violation — discrimination. Discrimination tears societies apart. Of all continents, Europe should know a thing or two about this. Written by Claudio Cordone, senior director of Amnesty International. A version of this article appeared in print on December 2, 2009, in The International Herald Tribune. The International Herald Tribune opinion page