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Swiss vote to ban minarets showcases new populism

More than 57 percent of Swiss residents who voted Sunday – a majority in 22 out of the country's 26's cantons – approved a proposal to ban the construction of new minarets.

The minaret of the big mosque of Geneva is reflected in a mirror Sunday, in Geneva, Switzerland.

Dominic Favre/Keystone/AP

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In what many see as a major setback to Europe's effort to integrate its booming Muslim population – and a potential boost to right-wing parties throughout the continent – Swiss voters Sunday approved a move to ban the construction of new minarets in the country.

The Swiss government had urged voters to reject the ban, saying that it would violate religious freedom and human rights and intensify Islamic radicalism. But in Sunday's referendum, which was organized by a right-wing political party, more than 57 percent of Swiss residents – a majority in 22 out of the country's 26's cantons – approved the proposal.

"Muslims don't just practice religion, they increasingly make political and legal demands," said Walter Wobmann, who heads the initiative behind the referendum. "The vote results shows that the Swiss do not want minarets or Sharia laws in their country."

Dangerous for democracy?

The referendum sought to stop "political Islamization" by amending the Swiss Constitution to add a clause stating "the construction of minarets is prohibited," a move critics say is dangerous for democracy.

"Here you have a new phenomenon, attacking the basic tenets of democracy with a referendum," says Dieter Oberndörfer, a University of Freiburg expert on Europe's Muslims. "Freedom of religious creed, the right for everybody to practice their religion, that's a basic tenet of democracy,"

In Switzerland, just as in neighboring Germany, the right of all religious groups to have a place of prayer is guaranteed by the Constitution.

More mosques, more problems

Across Europe, as Islam has become the continent's fastest growing religion, Muslims have established their public presence by building visible mosques with minarets, ending decades of practicing in hiding, in basements in courtyards.

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