Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 343, 11 March 2021

Switzerland: Referendum calls for ban on face coverings in public 
Harini Madhusudan

In the news 
On 8 March, Switzerland voted narrowly in favour of a ban on face coverings in public. The referendum was passed by 51.2 per cent in favour of the ban on face-coverings. The proposal to ban was put forward and campaigned by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) with slogans like “Stop Extremism! Yes to the veil ban.” Formally, there was no mention of ‘Islam’ in the campaign and the referendum was essentially promoted as an attempt that is aimed at stopping violent street protesters from using face coverings. However, the voting process is widely being referred to as the burqa ban. As a response to it, a leading Swiss Islamic group said it was “a dark day” for Muslims in Switzerland.

Issues at large
First, the narrow vote and Islam in Switzerland. About five per cent of Switzerland's population of 8.6 million people are Muslim, most originating from Turkey, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Switzerland in 2013, had considered a ban because the Swiss Justice Minister said that the veils made her uncomfortable; 65 per cent of the electorate voted in favour to ban face veils in public areas. Hence the 2021 decision opens old wounds. The narrow win between 51.2 per cent against 48.8 per cent further expands the principle of legal inequality and the stark divide among society. The Swiss parliament has been mildly sceptical in passing the referendum and is seen looking at alternatives to accommodate the use of face veils. The tourism industry alliance too has announced that they do not encourage the ban.

Second, the larger debate in Europe. Many countries across Europe have, in the past, debated and put into force a ban/ partial ban on the usage of head scarfs or religious symbols in public spaces. To name a few, Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Russia, Bulgaria all have legislations related to face-covering in their own countries. The ban on face coverings thus brings up the debate of multiculturalism in Europe on the pretext of public anxiety over the influx of migrants, the debate pours into discussions on religious freedoms, secular traditions as against extremism, or terrorism. France stands as the closest example of the same; it banned face veils in 2011.

Third, the growing right-wing politics. The recent years have seen substantial growth in popular sentiments against particular communities within the European Society. While some politicians argue for the need for greater assimilation, the issue generally plays out as a strong point in the mandates of right-wing/ populist political leaders. People of Switzerland are regularly invited to vote on various issues in national or regional referendums. Ahead of the vote, the chairman of the referendum committee and an SVP lawmaker described Muslim face coverings as “a symbol for this extreme, political Islam which has become increasingly prominent in Europe and which has no place in Switzerland.” So, the motivation behind the campaign could necessarily have been targeted towards the practices of one community.  

In perspective
Policies like these set dangerous long-term trends within societies and the wearing of veils in public have been an increasingly controversial topic in European countries. The choice to not use the word Islam in the referendum has been an interesting move by the campaigners. Switzerland follows France in taking popular measures on the role of religious practices in public lives. The small margin of the results of the referendum, however, stands as the highlight of this initiative.

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