Monday, March 1, 2010

GENEVA | After two centuries of neutrality, Switzerland found itself in a bizarre and unprecedented situation last weekend, facing a would-be “holy war” announced by Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

The Swiss government declined to comment on Col. Gadhafi’s latest salvo in a simmering diplomatic saga stemming from the Geneva police’s 2008 arrest and brief detainment of his son, Hannibal, and his wife for purportedly beating up their servants.

Although Col. Gadhafi’s jihad declaration late Thursday was widely viewed as a stunt by a leader given to outlandish behavior, the danger was difficult to dismiss in an era of Islamic-Western foment over issues ranging from headdress bans in Europe to faraway Middle East disputes, Iran’s nuclear program and Nordic newspapers’ caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

Analysts urged caution and Swiss citizens and politicians expressed alarm that a nation which managed to steer clear of direct involvement in the world wars and other bloody European conflicts was being dragged into an increasingly messy — if still nonviolent — conflict with an unpredictable government.

“You never know with crazies,” nationalist lawmaker Oskar Freysinger said. “I can imagine that this won’t be taken very seriously. But nevertheless, it’s the head of a state making a declaration of war against Switzerland.”

There was no sign of a security alert, however, or heightened official vigilance.

Col. Gadhafi called for the “holy war” ostensibly because of a recent Swiss referendum that banned the construction of new mosque minarets in the country. He also urged Muslims everywhere to boycott Swiss products and to bar the country’s planes and ships from the airports or seaports of Muslim nations.

Many here saw the proclamation as another act of revenge. Hannibal Gadhafi was released after two days, but Tripoli retaliated by recalling diplomats from Switzerland, taking its money out of Swiss vaults, interrupting oil shipments to the neutral country and preventing two Swiss businessmen from leaving Libya.

One Swiss businessman, 69-year-old construction executive Rachid Hamdani, was released last week after 19 months of detention. But 54-year-old Max Goeldi, an employee of the engineering firm ABB, remains in Libya.

Spain and Italy have mediated discussions between the two governments since Libya’s escalation of the dispute on Feb. 15 when it barred citizens from 25 European countries from visiting Libya in retaliation for a Swiss travel restrictions on Col. Gadhafi, his family and his ministers.

Col. Gadhafi, whose symbols of power include a host of young female bodyguards, lacks credibility in the Muslim world and has no religious authority to declare a jihad, Muslim leaders in Europe said.

But a Swiss sociologist who has written extensively on Libya said Col. Gadhafi’s call was serious because he proclaimed it on the holiday marking Muhammad’s birthday, which guarantees maximum exposure, and because it may inspire radicals.

“In the Islamic world, as everywhere else, there are foolish people,” sociologist Jean Ziegler said. “Such language is dangerous in today’s world, when people see the Muslim world against the West and the West against Muslims.”

Those who see a clash of civilizations need look no further than last November, when Swiss voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on building new minarets, putting the Alpine country at the forefront of a European backlash against a growing and sometimes insular Muslim population across the continent.

Muslims compose about 6 percent of Switzerland’s 7.5 million people, but most are refugees from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, with only a small minority hailing from traditionally Islamic countries in North Africa. In stark contrast to the more-devout immigrant populations in Britain and elsewhere, only about one in 10 Muslims in Switzerland actively practices the religion, the government says.

Anxieties about growing Muslim minorities have rippled across Europe in recent years, leading to legal changes in some countries. France has banned head scarves in schools and is considering legislation to ban head-to-toe coverings for women, while some German states have banned teachers from wearing head scarves in public schools.

Switzerland’s minaret ban was among the most extreme reactions, but it produced surprisingly little protest from Muslim groups in the country. Swiss Muslims also have questioned Col. Gadhafi’s call for jihad.

“In my opinion, this is a purely political matter between Libya and Switzerland, and has nothing to do with Islam or with Muslims,” said Omar el-Sanie, the director of Geneva’s mosque, who laughed when he heard Col. Gadhafi’s statement.

“Do you know what the word jihad means? It means you have to sacrifice your life for what you are doing. God knows why he said that,” Mr. el-Sanie said.

In other European countries, Muslim groups also rejected the jihad call. But European governments were mixed in their reactions, a week after Libya’s visa restrictions threatened lucrative work for Europeans in Libya’s booming oil and gas industries.

Col. Gadhafi’s comments are “unacceptable,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who on Feb. 16 asserted the Swiss were taking the rest of Europe “hostage” in the visa dispute, said “we are hoping for an immediate solution.”

In Geneva, officials at the United Nations European headquarters condemned Col. Gadhafi.

“It is truly absurd,” said U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay.

Swiss foreign and defense officials refused to say anything, apparently trying to avoid giving weight to Col. Gadhafi’s threat. Federal police spokesman Stefan Kunfermann said authorities were monitoring the situation but haven’t added new security measures yet.

Col. Gadhafi is known for his outbreaks and wild declarations. During Israel’s offensive in Gaza last year, he urged Arab leaders to let their citizens travel to the territory to fight Israel. But he then said the world’s Jews deserved their own homeland — albeit in a state shared with Palestinians called “Isratine.”

Col. Gadhafi called the U.N. Security Council a “terror council” when he addressed the body and has previously proposed partitioning Switzerland among its neighbors France, Germany and Italy.

While jihad against a Western country may appeal to some extremists, Col. Gadhafi has been long hated by militant groups and followers of political Islam for cracking down on them in the mid-1990s. Many remain in prison serving sentences from 10 years to life, and militant Web sites made no mention Friday of Col. Gadhafi’s jihad call.

Lisa Anderson, a Libya expert at the American University in Cairo, said Col. Gadhafi wasn’t interested in supporting any new terrorist acts.

“This declaration of Gadhafi’s is designed to embarrass and fluster the Europeans, notably the Swiss — rather like shouting “Boo!” at a horror movie,” Ms. Anderson said.

For Switzerland, which has avoided foreign conflicts since 1815, the lack of official reaction may reflect an utter lack of experience in dealing with international conflicts.

Last year, former Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz apologized in Libya and agreed to possible compensation claims for Hannibal Gadhafi’s arrest, a capitulation that came just months after Switzerland bowed to the demands of the United States and other foreign governments seeking a tougher crackdown on tax evaders hiding money in Swiss banks.

The government backed out of its deal with Libya after Col. Gadhafi’s government refused to allow the two Swiss citizens to return home. Mr. Goeldi has been convicted of violating residency laws and remains in Libyan custody.

“The government should say absolutely nothing about this absurd provocation,” said Mr. Ziegler, a former Swiss parliamentarian.

Others disagreed. Mr. Freysinger, a member of Switzerland’s biggest political party, said the country should at least appeal to the U.N. Security Council to condemn Col. Gadhafi’s speech.

“This man has declared war on Switzerland. If Hitler had done the same, everybody would have protested. But with this guy, we just accept it,” Mr. Freysinger said.

Associated Press writers Frank Jordans and Eliane Engeler in Geneva; Jenny Barchfield in Paris; Victor L. Simpson in Rome and Hadeel al-Shalchi in Cairo contributed to this article.

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