|Demonstrators gathered in Bern to protest against the ban on the construction of minarets [EPA]|
In the cold night air, they gathered.
First in threes and fours, until it became a bigger group. They carried candles and their anger – upset that Switzerland had approved a vote to ban minarets, the prayer towers on top of mosques.
They first read about the demonstration on a website and decided to join. And as the night got colder, the numbers got bigger, 50, 60, all denouncing the surprise result.
One woman told me: “This speaks against religious freedom in our country”.
The police kept a watchful eye.
Will of the people
The opinion polls thought there would be a narrow “no” vote. They called it wrong. Moments after the polls closed, the exit surveys were predicting a “yes”. And they were right.
In front of the bright lights of the media centre, close to the parliament, the country’s justice minister announced the will of the people had to be accepted. The constitution would be changed.
The small, slight, dark-haired figure of Eveline Widmet Schlumpf insisted this was not a vote against Islam, but a simple ban on minarets.
“The ban on construction of new minarets does have the effect of restricting the freedom to display the Muslim faith to the outside world by erecting a minaret,” Schlumpf said.
“However, the freedom to profess one’s faith in Islam and to practice the religion alone or in the community is not affected in any way.”
Switzerland has 160 mosques and cultural centres. We know this because it was included in the referendum fact pack sent to voters. Only four have minarets.
The ban was promoted by the right-wing People’s Party, which ran a controversial poster campaign to sway voters.
Their argument was that this was just the start for those who wanted an Islamic state in Switzerland. There was never any concrete evidence to back up the rhetoric.
Martin Baltisser is one of the party’s senior officials. He’s heard the claims that this was a racist campaign, bordering on Islamophobic.
“It wasn’t racist. It was an opportunity to discuss people’s genuine fears and it was a very good discussion.”
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The turnout was much higher than expected. As we stood outside the school, which was used as a polling station in one of Bern’s suburbs, they even turned up an hour before it opened, so keen were they to cast their vote.
And like those putting together the opinion polls, all we spoke to insisted they opposed the ban.
The Swiss government will now introduce article 72, paragraph three into the Swiss constitution, banning the construction of minarets.
Opposition parties are talking of a challenge in the European Court of Human Rights. What was meant to be a short debate on the future of Islam, now has the potential to become a long-running open sore.
Muslim communities say the decision will spread deep concern and worry. The Swiss government and businesses are worried too – about whether this controversial but democratic ballot will provoke an international backlash.