On March 7, Switzerland joined the growing number of European countries which banned the burka. A narrow majority of voters (51%) endorsed a popular initiative that mandated a ban on all forms of face covering, including that applied by hooligans. Although the niqab and the burka are not explicitly mentioned in the text of the popular initiative, which will now enter the Swiss constitution, they stood at the center of the public discussion and political campaigns.
What’s in a Decade?
The initiative was launched by the Egerkinger Committee, which consists of members of the conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and the Protestant evangelical Federal Democratic Union (EDU). The Egerkinger Committee describes its core mission as “informing the population about the extent and consequences of the Islamization of Switzerland” and preparing political campaigns to counter it. The same Committee also stood behind the initiative for banning the construction of minarets a decade ago, which had been triggered initially after the plans of a Turkish-Islamic association with links to the Turkish ultranationalist Grey Wolves to build a minaret in a small Swiss municipality caused a public row. The initiative was adopted decisively (57.5%) by the Swiss population in 2009. The decision surprised most observers since the pollsters had predicted a resounding defeat for the initiative.
However, the vote on face veiling proved different from the minaret vote in many respects. While the decision twelve years ago had come as a surprise, this time, early polls indicated a decisive win for the proponents, although only the SVP supported the initiative among the major parties. Moreover, while the minaret vote was split mainly along the Left-Right divide, this time, both the coalitions against and in favour of the initiative were broad-based and politically diverse. The consequence of these new coalitions can be seen in the final results.
Conservative cantons, especially those situated in the Alps, which are heavily reliant on tourism, were significantly less enthusiastic about the face-cover ban than they were twelve years ago about the minaret ban — likely due to fear of deterring tourists from the Gulf region, who make up a growing percentage of visitors to Switzerland and who are highly appreciated for their wealth. On the other hand, the French-speaking cantons endorsed the face-covering ban this time around in the highest numbers, while having rejected the minaret ban last time. Overall, the Left was more successful in mobilizing its voter base against the initiative, but twenty to thirty percent chose not to follow the party line.
The Political Argument
The proponents of the initiative primarily based their arguments on human rights, security, and a national culture of displaying one’s face. Notable was the prominence of several secular intellectuals and activists of Middle Eastern background, as well as religious moderates, who endorsed the initiative. They argued that burka and niqab were symbols of the ideology of political Islam and also stood for the subordination and dehumanization of women.
On the other hand, Left-wing opponents of the initiative saw it as a racist endeavour, targeting all Muslims, which they claimed would lead to an increase in anti-Muslim hate. Center-conservative opponents, for their part, warned of possible negative repercussions for the economy and argued that the initiative was largely symbolic and failed to tackle any relevant issues.
Among the interesting ways the issue cut across traditional political cleavages was the rift it created among feminists. While mainstream feminist organizations that embrace intersectionalism rejected the initiative, prominent second-wave feminists voiced support. Similarly, several proponents of the face-cover ban argued that it was the opponents of the initiative who were stigmatizing Muslims as radicals by claiming that the burka was a symbol of Islam. This was the view of Swiss-Moroccan intellectual Kacem el-Ghazzali, who saw the ban as a sign of solidarity with women in the Islamic world and the “the majority of the Swiss Muslim community, that rejects extremism and its symbols”.
Finally, some opponents of the face-cover ban argued that it might lead to radicalization and violent responses. Is there a risk for a backlash?
Backlash: From Whom?
It is worth noting that Switzerland has suffered less Islamist radicalization and violence than its European neighbours in the last decade, despite the minaret vote in 2009, showing that there is no clear connection between such policy and radicalization. There are several reasons why this might be the case. Switzerland’s Muslim community is more heterogeneous than that of its neighbours, hailing in the majority from more secular communities and the Balkans. The most prominent groups are Albanians, Bosnians, and Turks.
The diversity and secularization of the Muslim demographic in Switzerland has certainly been a moderating factor, but it has not prevented the establishment of Islamist and Islamist-controlled groups in Switzerland, which might seek to exploit the vote by invoking a clash of civilizations. These groups include the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood), Milli Görüs (Turkish Ikhwan), Diyanet (Turkish state-linked groups), and several Bosnian and Albanian Islamist groups. They are all active in Switzerland and represented in Swiss Muslim umbrella organizations, which engage with the authorities to shape policy.
A handful of Salafi organizations, most prominently the so-called Islamic Central Council, were heavily engaged in agitation against the initiative. The Council’s leaders were recently convicted for terrorist propaganda on behalf of an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
There is also a violent Islamist scene in Switzerland, which is heavily monitored by the security services. About ninety Swiss Muslims have joined jihadi terrorist groups. Moreover, two terrorist attacks carried out by Islamist individuals have occurred since last year.
The Backlash Narrative and the Response
The Islamists and Salafists can be expected to try to instrumentalize the result of the vote to recruit among Muslims by claiming that Switzerland is persecuting Islam and its believers as a whole, and that these groups offer protection. However, several factors limit the appeal of any campaign to mobilize Muslims against the Swiss vote.
First, comprehensive bans on face coverings already exist in six European countries: Switzerland, therefore, can hardly be singled out. Moreover, several Swiss cantons have already introduced such bans — without serious repercussions.
Second, the great ethnic and ideological diversity of the Swiss Muslim community and its good social status make is more difficult for Islamists to construct a victimization narrative on the basis of which their message usually thrives.
Third, the conditions for the kind of international Islamist outrage campaign, as seen during the Muhammad cartoons controversy of 2005-06 that led to mass-action against Denmark, have worsened. Most regimes in the region have withdrawn their support for Islamist groups and clamped down on their structures.
Fourth, Swiss diplomacy maintains strong links to political actors in the region, including Islamists, and is probably already working to limit the possible backlash to the decision.
In short, despite the international headlines, the vote’s consequences can be expected to be limited.
Consequences Going Forward
In terms of concrete effects, the most immediate, on women wearing the face veil in Switzerland, is limited by definition: though it became a matter of political dispute, nobody seriously doubts that the number of Muslim women wearing face veils was relatively small to start with. Some statements after the vote indicate that there are Salafi individuals considering leaving Switzerland for more welcoming environments — hardly something that would have changed votes on either side.
If there is a consequence with potentially deeper and longer-term reverberations it is that the initiative’s adoption may hint at a growing rift between the Swiss population and the political leadership. For the second time in just over a decade, a majority of Swiss voters have expressed their discomfort with Islamism and its perceived growing influence, yet the state continues to work with Islamist actors and consider them legitimate Muslim representatives — and will probably continue to do so, despite these two rebukes. It is likely that future popular initiatives will likely target these more consequential areas of government policy.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.