Where Face Masks Are Required but Burqas Are Banned
Switzerland’s crackdown on Islamic symbols is normalizing anti-Muslim bigotry across the political spectrum.
BY RIM-SARAH ALOUANE | MARCH 10, 2021, 10:55 AM
Switzerland, hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, has been in a partial shutdown since January. Face masks are mandatory everywhere from public transportation to the country’s idyllic ski slopes. But that reality didn’t stop a slim majority of Swiss voters from approving a ban on full-face coverings in public spaces in a March 7 referendum.
The new ban wasn’t motivated by anti-mask sentiment. In fact, it won’t apply to facial coverings worn for health reasons—now or after the pandemic. Rather, the measure was aimed at a minuscule minority of Muslim women who wear the burqa or niqab. And while similar initiatives in France, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Austria have always been controversial, the deeply ironic timing of Switzerland’s burqa ban proves once and for all that efforts to ban face coverings were never really about supposed security concerns surrounding face concealment in public spaces.
At their core, burqa bans have always been an attempt to marginalize Muslim women—and they have succeeded in bringing anti-Muslim sentiment into the mainstream.Trending Articles
Switzerland’s referendum was the product of a people’s initiative launched by the Egerkinger Komitee, an advocacy group that includes members of the right-wing, national conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and aims to organize against “the claims to power of political Islam in Switzerland.” Arguing that “free people show their face” and “the burqa and niqab are not normal clothes,” the group in 2017 collected the required 100,000 petition signatures to put the issue to a referendum. On March 7, 51.2 percent of Swiss voters approved it.
The deeply ironic timing of Switzerland’s burqa ban proves it was never about supposed security concerns.
Clamping down on the visibility of Muslims in Switzerland is nothing new. Swiss Muslims have been under scrutiny since 2004, when Switzerland held a pair of referendums on measures that would have eased access to citizenship for second- and third-generation immigrants. The SVP’s strong mobilization against the initiatives transformed them instead into cultural referendums on whether Muslims are part of the Swiss national community, a notion the majority of Swiss voters rejected.
Then, in 2009, the Egerkinger Komitee proposed an initiative that sought to ban minarets on the grounds that they are a symbol of political Islam. It was approved by 57.5 percent of Swiss voters despite the opposition of domestic Muslim organizations and church leaders from other religious groups.
In December 2014, the SVP first sought to prohibit full-face coverings via a parliamentary initiative to amend the Federal Constitution, arguing that burqas are a threat to national security. But the Swiss Council of States rejected it in March 2017 on the grounds that the small number of burqa-clad women in Switzerland meant public order was not disturbed. There was also concern that a ban would have a negative impact on tourism from Gulf countries.
Though the SVP and Egerkinger Komitee have been active for decades, Switzerland’s burqa referendum can’t be explained without the broader regional context: namely, Europe’s crisis of identity in a globalized, multicultural world. Switzerland is only the latest country to express and assuage this cultural insecurity by managing the visibility of Muslims and Islam, which are perceived as a political, ideological, and national security threat to European values and civilization.
Muslims have been part of Europe’s fabric for centuries, but they continue to be misunderstood and misrepresented in media and politics, where Islam is often framed as an inherently violent religion and Muslims are portrayed as incapable of integrating into European societies. While there is certainly some cultural anxiety—the natural result of rapidly changing demographics on the continent—most of the sensationalism is constructed, encouraged, and egged on by political parties that have a vested interest in creating a supposed “Muslim problem.” The purveyors of these ideas seek to convince the broad populace that Islam is a religion inherently at odds with Western values and that Muslims must be tamed and domesticated. Right now, they are winning.
In Switzerland, demonizing Islam, Muslims, and immigrants as hostile to human rights and freedom—of expression, religion, and sexual orientation—has long been a pillar of the SVP’s electoral strategy, as well as that of other populist national conservative parties such as the Federal Democratic Union of Switzerland and the Ticino League. Because this fixation has contributed to countless electoral victories for the SVP—transforming it into one of the most powerful parties in the country—others have adopted its strategy.