Swiss tensions rise over 'racist' minaret poster

Zurich claims banning anti-Islamic placards would infringe laws of free speech

Zurich has approved the display of a controversial anti-Islamic poster showing a menacing looking woman in a burqa, next to minarets that closely resemble missiles standing on the Swiss flag.

The posters are part of a far right party's campaign ahead of a national referendum in late November on whether to ban mosques from having minarets. They have been given the go-ahead by Zurich city council, which argues that they are a necessary component of free speech.

But the posters have been bitterly criticised by Swiss Muslims and anti-racism groups, and the cities of Basel and Lausanne have banned them, claiming they create a "racist, disrespectful and dangerous image of Islam".

A spokesman for Switzerland's Federal Commission against Racism said yesterday that the posters amounted to an attack on all of Switzerland's 310,000 Muslims, most of whom come from Bosnia, Turkey and Albania. "They are tantamount to the denigration and defamation of the peaceful Swiss Muslim population," he said.

The posters are a part of a two-year campaign by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) to have minarets banned throughout Switzerland. The party was re-elected to a share of power in 2007 with its largest-ever portion of the vote after mounting a similar anti-immigrant campaign.

Henri-Maxime Khedoud, a Geneva resident and spokesman for the Swiss Association of Secular Muslims, said the posters were an attempt to play on voters' fears about Islam. "They give the impression that we are trying to impose sharia law like Saudi Arabia, but this is not true. Most Swiss Muslims come from Europe," he said. "What concerns us is everyday racism, not a lack of minarets," he added.

Switzerland has hundreds of mosques but only four minarets. Opposition to them has focused on the small town of Langenthal, near Berne, where there are plans to built a new mosque and a 30ft-high minaret.

More than 100,000 have signed an anti-minaret petition, which under Swiss law means that the issue must be decided through a national referendum. However, recent polls suggest there is unlikely to be enough support for the proposal to pass. A survey conducted this week showed 51 per cent of Swiss voters would reject the ban while 34.9 per cent were in favour of it.