The Swiss Burqa Ban and its implications for Islamic relations in Europe
In what constitutes a major concern for advocates of religious freedom, the Muslim community in Switzerland has had their right to wear the niqab and the burqa outlawed after a contentious national referendum in March this year. After a campaign that lasted months, Switzerland officially voted to ban full facial covering, with a narrow 51.2 per cent of votes. As a result of the referendum, Switzerland now joins its European neighbours Austria, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Denmark in introducing full or partial burqa and niqab bans.
The Ban on Full Facial Coverings or the Ban on the Burqa?
The “Ban on Full Facial Coverings'' was promoted by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) as a security method to protect against crime and hooliganism. The ban prevents the wearing of full facial coverings, such as burqas, niqabs, bandanas and ski masks, in public places.
Now commonly referred to as the ‘Burqa Ban’, the ‘Ban on Full Facial Coverings’ has been widely interpreted as an indirect affront on Switzerland’s Muslim minority. Despite the campaign being framed as a step to improve public safety, the move undeniably signals a rising disharmony and distrust between the Islamic community and Swiss political leaders.
Only very few Muslim women in Switzerland wear full-facial coverings, with some sources claiming there are as little as a few dozen women who wear niqabs and burqas in Switzerland. So, it has been defended that the ban was intended to have a negligible impact on Muslim women living within Switzerland, but rather address anonymous street crime.
However, it is expected that the decision will impact the future of Islamic migration and Muslim tourism, and that this result was intentional. Reviewing the campaign, it is not hard to understand this perspective as Islamophobia and a misunderstanding of the meaning of facial coverings for Muslim women featured prominently.
During the campaign, members of the SVP like Walter Wobmann stated that the burqa was a “symbol for this extreme, political Islam… which has no place in Europe”. Indeed, much of the campaign material supporting the ban featured Islamophobic imagery and sentiment, and was backed by the slogan “stop extremism”.
Switzerland and Islamic Relations
Switzerland has historically had tense relations with the Islamic community. In a poll conducted by Switzerland’s Federal Statistics Office, 29 per cent of respondents answered that they mistrusted Islam, highlighting Switzerland’s apprehensive view toward the Islamic and Middle Eastern community.
In 2009, 57.5 per cent of voters and 19 of the 23 cantons elected to ban Islamic minarets on mosques. This ban was met with condemnation from France, Sweden and the UN, but nonetheless, it went ahead. The Libyan Government even called for a “Jihad against Switzerland'' in response to Switzerland’s minaret ban.
In 2016, an imam was accused and arrested for inciting violence, and in 2018 a Muslim couple were denied citizenship for refusing to shake hands with individuals of the opposite sex, which further stoked concerns about Islamic radicalisation within sectors of the community.
Despite the evidence of Islamophobia within Switzerland, this policy did receive backlash within the country’s borders. Six cantons voted against the ban, and the Swiss Federal Council opposed a nationwide ban, instead proposing the removal of face coverings for identification purposes only. The campaign also raised concern and criticism from various advocacy groups, including criticism from much of Switzerland’s Islamic community who were concerned the vote would prevent Muslim women from integrating into society and would impede on people’s freedom of religion.
When asked by SBS Arabic24, Australian Muslim Ms Asmaa Shamseddine attacked the proposal, describing the burqa as a unique feature of the Islamic identity and insisting that banning it would remove the right for Muslim women to choose their dress. Similarly, Australian imam Alaa El Zokm described the proposal as a “process of restricting women and hindering their right to practice and wear whatever they choose”.
Feminism and the Burqa
Seemingly, at the heart of this debate are concerns over women’s rights. Gisela Widmer of the Swiss Women’s Committee supported the ban, arguing that the burqa inhibits women’s rights. German journalist and feminist Alice Schwarzer has also been an advocate for banning Muslim face coverings, stating that after fifty years of fighting for equal rights women should not have “to be invisible”.
Equally, some have accused the bill of being “racist and sexist” and proclaimed that a burqa ban “is not done for women but against them”. One prominent Muslim activist, El-Sheikh, attacked the Swiss Women’s Committee for supporting for the bill and accused the SVP of using women’s rights as a cover for anti-Muslim sentiment. In response to the vote, the Swiss-based Islamic Central Council also described the result as a “disappointment for all Muslims”.
An Islamophobic Europe
This referendum and ban continues the trend of anti-Islamic views in Europe from both conservative and progressive political adherents. Despite differing reasons to support the ban, both extreme left and right wing advocates in Switzerland voted in favour of prohibiting the burqa and niqab. The extreme left supported the ban due to the perceived symbolism of female oppression, while the extreme right supported the ban due to the ‘national security threats’ that the burqa, the niqab and Islamic culture allegedly pose to Swiss and European values.
Conclusion: Future of Islam in Europe
Ultimately, as tensions between Muslims and Europeans appear to have intensified throughout the continent, many questions are being posed on the future role of the Islamic community in Europe. While many Muslims continue to migrate to the EU, much of European society remains opposed to welcoming and integrating Islamic customs into a dominant Western Christian culture. The result of this vote, and its preceding campaign, draws attention to the rise of political extremism and its impacts on minority communities not only in Switzerland and Europe, but across the globe.
Timothy Pinzone is in his final semester of a Bachelor of International Security Studies degree at Macquarie University. He is a member of the Seventh Day Adventist church and his policy interests include counter-terrorism, intercultural dialogue and geopolitics. (NSW)