By NICK CUMMING-BRUCE
GENEVA — Switzerland’s political leaders on Monday faced a chorus of criticism at home and abroad over an overwhelming popular vote to ban construction of minarets.
Government ministers trying to contain the fallout from the vote voiced shock and disappointment with a result that the Swiss establishment newspaper Le Temps called a “brutal sign of hostility” to Muslims that was “inspired by fear, fantasy and ignorance.”
The country’s justice minister, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, said the vote was not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture, but reflected fears among the population.
With support for the ban from 57.5 percent of voters, however, ministers were forced to acknowledge that they had failed to quell popular anxieties about the impact of what right-wing parties have portrayed as “creeping Islamization.”
Ms. Widmer-Schlumpf said that it was “undeniably a reflection of the fears and uncertainties that exist among the population; concerns that Islamic fundamentalist ideas could lead to the establishment of parallel societies.”
Outside Switzerland, criticism was harsh.
“I am a bit shocked by this decision,” the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said in an interview with RTL radio, calling it “an expression of intolerance.” He added: “I hope the Swiss come back on this decision.”
The Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, whose country holds the rotating E.U. presidency, described the vote as “an expression of quite a bit of prejudice and maybe even fear.”
Muslim communities within Switzerland reacted cautiously, clearly concerned to avoid inflaming tensions. “We were a bit shocked, we hadn’t expected this result,” Abdel Majri, president of the League of Swiss Muslims, said in an interview. “This is another step towards Islamophobia in Switzerland and Europe in general.”
The government and most Swiss political parties had opposed the motion, he noted, attributing the size of the majority in favor of the ban to right-wing playing to popular fears and misconceptions, he said. “We are looking at how we can repair the situation,” he said.
Muslims in Europe expressed concern that there would be less understanding of the ban among non-European Muslims less familiar with European politics and culture. “We are a bit afraid of the rise of extremism on both sides,” said Ayman Ali, secretary general of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe.
Those concerns were born out by the stern reaction from even moderate Muslim leaders in the Middle East. The ban was “not considered just an attack on freedom of beliefs, but also an attempt to insult the feelings of the Muslim community in and outside Switzerland,” Ali Gomaa, an influential Egyptian mufti, was quoted as saying by the Middle East News Agency.
The head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, representing 57 Muslim countries, expressed disappointment with the vote, which a statement on the its Web site said “stood to be interpreted as xenophobic, prejudiced, discriminative and against the universal human rights values.”
The statement added that “it would tarnish the reputation of the Swiss people as a tolerant and progressive society.”
Swiss newspapers quoted Ms. Widmer-Schlumpf as saying Swiss exports and tourism from the Middle East could suffer as a result of the vote Sunday.
Critics of the ban within Switzerland, meanwhile, started exploring the possibilities for challenging its legality. Ms. Widmer-Schlumpf reportedly said the ban was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Switzerland is a signatory.