Where Face Masks Are Required but Burqas Are Banned

Switzerland’s crackdown on Islamic symbols is normalizing anti-Muslim bigotry across the political spectrum.

A campaign poster advocating for a ban on full-face coverings in Biberen, Switzerland, on March 7. The poster reads “Stop extremism!” in German.
A campaign poster advocating for a ban on full-face coverings in Biberen, Switzerland, on March 7. The poster reads “Stop extremism!” in German. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

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.

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.

In left-wing circles, too, there is now a narrative claiming that Islam violates democratic standards and practices. Many Swiss leftists believe that Muslims are particularly susceptible to the use of violence or terrorism, and that they seek to create a society based on religion as a pillar of the social, cultural, and political order. In Geneva, the far-left is split between advocates of a hard-line interpretation of secularism—like the Swiss Party of Labor and its coalition partners—and those supportive of an open and inclusive model that recognizes multiculturalism, like the Solidarity party.

The nascent Swiss debate about secularism mirrors that of its more established French neighbor. In France, the promotion of laïcité—the French brand of secularism—has become a rallying cry for the political and intellectual elite who wish to erase Muslim visibility and enforce assimilation under the guise of legal neutrality.

Once a liberal tool that protected religious freedom and freedom of conscience, laïcité has been weaponized to target the public expressions of Islam that are deemed incompatible with French values, however vaguely defined. In recent years, both the right and the gauche laïcarde (the secularist left) have expressed support for a more restrictive and narrow understanding of laïcité that effectively makes religious Muslims—especially women—disappear from public spaces.

Keeping “political Islam” ill-defined is a boon for Islamophobes.

The French debate about laïcité and Islamic dress reached a fever pitch in the summer of 2016, when several cities across France banned the wearing of burkinis. The bans, which have since been overturned by the Council of State, were introduced as an ostensible effort to curb “political Islam.” At the time, former President Nicolas Sarkozy denounced the full-coverage bathing suits as a “provocation” in support of radical Islam. Likewise, in Switzerland, the new burqa ban was won through allusions to the specter of “political Islam.” Across Europe, the term has proved an effective electoral weapon

The problem is that “political Islam” is a vague notion that can mean virtually anything when alluded to under the mantra of fighting terrorism. For some, wearing a visible Muslim religious garment, eating halal food, or simply having conservative social beliefs is considered a step too far. As a result, authorities can interpret a mandate against “political Islam” very broadly, which can lead to the curtailment of civil liberties. France’s controversial new bill “strengthening republican principles,” which aims to fight “separatism,” is a case in point.

Keeping “political Islam” ill-defined is also a boon for Islamophobes. The SVP’s initiatives have succeeded largely because the party has been able to convince broad swaths of the public that Muslims who choose to make their presence visible simply by practicing their religion—whether by constructing a minaret or wearing a burqa—are attempting to “Islamize” the Swiss public. Then come referendums aimed at erasing any sign of a Muslim presence in Switzerland, with the implication that Muslims must remain invisible to fit into Swiss society. But these bans create an inevitable paradox: Targeting Muslims makes them even more visible, only contributing to an increase of racism and Islamophobia. The process is cyclical.

While Muslims are targeted as a collective, veiled Muslim women bear the brunt of Islamophobic outrage—framed as being victims of patriarchal norms or blindly following religious dictates. But far from liberating, burqa and burkini bans often only serve to exclude Muslim women from public life. Authorities, politicians, pundits, and certain groups of feminists claim to want to “free” Muslim women without including them in that process. And if these women do speak up, there is a systematic distrust of the true freedom of their choice, and therefore of their moral autonomy.

In all of this, it is important to remember that the number of Muslim women who conceal their faces remains vanishingly small in Europe. In 2009, the French newspaper Le Figaro estimated that only 2,000 women in France—out of a total French population of 65 million—wore a face veil for religious or philosophical reasons. In Switzerland, population 8.5 million, that number is estimated between 21 and 37. These are fractions so small they barely register on a calculator.

If the statistical insignificance of Europe’s burqa-clad population seems surprising, that’s because anti-Muslim parties across the political spectrum have successfully inflated the Muslim population in order to provoke fear in voters. In a 2017 survey conducted by Tamedia, a Swiss media company, respondents estimated—on average—that Muslims make up 17.2 percent of the Swiss population. In reality, that number lies at 5.1 percent, according to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office.

Besides burqa bans, it’s hard to think of another instance where the public would support a government initiative that targets so few people. But it makes sense in a climate where political success depends on fear—convincing voters that the “traditional culture” of Europe (whatever that may be) is in decline.

What Europe must recognize is that the hypersecuritization of Islam will only lead to deeper-entrenched segregation, thereby jeopardizing the liberal values it claims to stand for. Switzerland’s burqa ban is proof that the continent has yet to view its Muslim citizens as fully capable of autonomy and self-determination and able to formulate their own political will. If Europe really wants to save itself from cultural decline, recognizing Muslims as full citizens is where it should start.

Rim-Sarah Alouane is a Ph.D. candidate and a researcher in comparative law at the Toulouse 1 Capitole University in France. Her research focuses on civil liberties, constitutional law, and human rights in Europe and North America. Follow her on twitter at: @RimSarah. Twitter: @RimSarah

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