by Charles Brenner for Times Online:

After keeping invaders at bay for two centuries the Swiss are about to vote on what many see as the enemy within: their growing minority of Muslims.

On Sunday, the calm little nation at the heart of Europe will decide whether to approve a constitutional ban on building minarets, the spires that are often attached to mosques.

The issue arose when Mutalip Karaademi, a Muslim leader in the town of Langenthal, north of Berne, suggested a modest tower for the local mosque. The mayor supported what would have been only the fifth minaret in Switzerland — but it was blocked by opponents who want to halt what they see as inroads by political Islam in the world’s oldest democracy.

“They think we are animals, when we are normal people just like they are, not a threat to anyone,” said Mr Karaademi, who arrived 27 years ago from Albania. “They call us new names every day . . . terrorists and Islamists,” he told The Times.

Strong opposition to a possible ban is coming from the federal Government, churches and the business world, who fear that Switzerland’s spirit of tolerance is being sullied by the populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP). The group rode the nationalist tide under Christoph Blocher, its charismatic former leader, to become the biggest party in parliament in 2003.

“The simple fact of holding this vote is disastrous for Switzerland’s image,” said Hugues Hiltpold, a Radical MP from Geneva. “If it passes, part of what makes Switzerland Swiss will fall — its respect for minorities, its tolerance and freedom.”

Polls have shown a narrow margin opposed to the ban, with more than a third in favour and the rest undecided.

The Muslim population, mainly from Turkey and the Balkans, has grown from a few thousand to more than 400,000, 4 per cent of the population, since the 1970s. There have been no extremist incidents associated with the 150 mosques and prayer rooms, but the minaret issue is seen by many as a chance to save Switzerland from tension over immigration of the kind that has affected its neighbours.

Ulrich Schlüer, one of those who raised the requisite 100,000 signatures for the vote to take place, said: “We compare our situation to Germany, France or England — the problems they have in their suburbs. That is what we do not want.” Voters were hiding their intentions from pollsters and would approve the move, he said.

The SVP rejects the government view that a ban would breach the law on freedom of religion. It cites Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, who once called minarets “the bayonets of Islam”.

The Establishment recognises widespread disquiet over Muslims and is trying to counter scaremongering by the SVP and its right-wing evangelical allies. President Merz reassured the nation in a video broadcast on Tuesday. “Muslims should be able to practise their religion and have access to minarets in Switzerland too, but the call of the muezzin will not sound here,” he said.

The political world is worried about a worldwide Muslim backlash of the kind that hit Denmark after the affair of the Muhammad cartoons. Business leaders are also concerned — in a nation that earns £10 billion a year from Muslim countries.