Swiss voters have narrowly approved a proposal to ban face coverings in public spaces. The measure comes just over a decade after citizens voted to ban the construction of minarets, the tower-like structures on mosques that are often used to call Muslims to prayer.
The referenda reflect the determination of a majority of Swiss voters to preserve Swiss traditions and values in the face of runaway multiculturalism and the encroachment of political Islam.
Switzerland now joins Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands and Sweden, all of which currently have full or partial bans on religious and non-religious face coverings.
The binding referendum, approved on March 7 by 51.2% of voters, is popularly known as the "burqa initiative," although the proposal does not specifically mention burqas or niqabs, the face-coving garments worn by some Muslim women. The ban encompasses most face coverings, including the bandanas and masks sometimes used by violent street protesters, and applies to all public spaces, including parks, restaurants, shops, and public transport.
The measure allows for some exceptions: health (anti-Covid masks); weather (scarves), safety (motorcycle helmets) and local customs (carnival costumes). Face coverings may also be worn inside houses of worship.
In line with the Swiss system of direct democracy, the country's constitution will now be amended to incorporate the ban. The government has two years to draw up the necessary legislation.
The initiative was sponsored by the so-called Egerking Committee, a political group linked to the conservative Swiss People's Party (Schweizerische Volkspartei, SVP), the biggest political party in Switzerland.
Referendum committee chairman and SVP member Walter Wobmann 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." He added: "In Switzerland our tradition is that you show your face. That is a sign of our basic freedoms."
Fellow SVP member Jean-Luc Addor attributed the success in the referendum to the party's ability to promote its ideas outside of its core electorate, including among feminists and progressive Muslims. "Some Muslims also understood that the niqab is a clear symbol of radical Islam," he said.
Elham Manea, a Yemeni-Swiss political scientist who has long warned of the dangers of Sharia law, told Swiss Radio that the niqab is clearly a "symbol of a religious fundamentalist ideology." She added: "In a free society, women must be respected, and their rights and dignity protected."
Mohamed Hamdaoui, an Algerian-Swiss counselor in the canton of Bern, described the outcome of the vote as "a great relief." He said that the vote was "an opportunity to put a stop to Islamism" and not "the Muslims who obviously have their rightful place in this country."
Saïda Keller-Messahli, founder and president of the Forum for a Progressive Islam, agreed that the approval of the referendum was a positive development. A native of Tunisia who for years has warned of the dangers of an Islamist subculture in Switzerland, said that "saying yes to the ban on veiling is saying no to a totalitarian ideology that has no place in a democracy."
Swiss feminists are divided on the issue, with some saying that burqas and niqabs are oppressive, and others arguing that women should be free to choose what they want to wear.
Swiss writer and playwright Gisela Widmer criticized some feminist groups for opposing the ban:
"The full veil, which turns the woman into a faceless being without an identity, is a symbol of misogynistic political Islam. It is the most visible symbol of an overall fascist ideology, which includes gender apartheid, but also anti-Semitism and gay hatred....
"[Some feminists say that] the fact that the initiative comes from the SVP is a mockery. Correct! Because the initiative should not come from the SVP, but from committed feminist circles. Even more unforgivable than this failure on the part of the left is that they are now also fighting the 'Burqa Initiative.' A little less naivety and a little more international women's solidarity would suit the SP [Socialist Party] women. If we approve the 'Burqa Initiative,' we cannot change the reality of women in the Sharia states, but we can set an example and say that we are very serious about a woman's right to self-determination."
Maya Graf, a co-president of the feminist group Alliance F, countered:
"Feminists stand up for the rights and freedoms of women. This also includes the free choice of clothing."
Emrah Erken, a lawyer and member of the Forum for Progressive Islam, tweeted:
"Sharia and feminism are opposites. You cannot wear the hijab and claim that you are a feminist. Such a claim is simply not true."
The Swiss government opposed the measure. Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter argued that full-face coverings are a "marginal phenomenon" (Randphänomen) and that a ban could harm tourism because, according to the government, most Muslim women who cover their faces in Switzerland are visitors from wealthy Persian Gulf states.
The Swiss tourism sector also opposed the proposal. "The burqa ban would damage our image as an open and tolerant tourist destination," said Nicole Brändle Schlegel of HotellerieSuisse, a coalition of hoteliers and tourism groups from Bern.
The Director of the Swiss Tourism Association, Barbara Gisi, added: "We want to show the countries from which many fully veiled tourists come to Switzerland that we are still a hospitable country." She said she hopes that the Swiss government will launch an "explanatory and charm offensive" in the relevant countries.
The Federation of Islamic Umbrella Organizations in Switzerland (Föderation islamischer Dachorganisationen Schweiz, FIDS) stated:
"We are very disappointed with the result of the vote. The disappointment is mixed with great indignation. It would have been expected that the Swiss people would not allow symbolic politics to be carried out on the backs of some Muslim women. This symbolic policy is directed against Muslims.... Anchoring dress codes in the constitution is not a struggle for freedom of women, but a retreat into the past."
Ferah Ulucay, general secretary of the Central Council of Muslims in Switzerland (Islamischer Zentralrat der Schweiz, IZRS) said that approval of the referendum was "a dark day for Switzerland" because it "succeeded in anchoring the prevailing Islamophobia in the constitution." She vowed to challenge to the ban in court and to pay the fines for women who are prosecuted for violating it.
The referendum was approved by majorities in 20 out of Switzerland's 26 cantons; it was rejected in six cantons, including those that include the country's three biggest cities, Basel, Geneva and Zurich, and the capital, Bern.
Minaret Ban: A Decade On, Mixed Results
The Egerking Committee was also the driving force behind the 2009 referendum on banning the construction of minarets. The ban was aimed at slowing the growth of political Islam in Switzerland by curbing the influence of Turkey and other Muslim countries in the affairs of Swiss Muslims.
A decade later, the referendum's impact has been mixed. No new minarets have been built in Switzerland since the ban entered into effect, but the foreign influence on Swiss Islamic communities appears to be greater than ever.
The minaret referendum, held on November 29, 2009, was approved by 57.5% of Swiss voters and resulted in an amendment to Article 72 of the Swiss Constitution, which now states: "The construction of minarets is prohibited."
The SVP argued that minarets are "beacons of jihad" and a "symbol of a religious-political claim to power and dominance which threatens — in the name of alleged freedom of religion — the constitutional rights of others."
The SVP backed its claim by citing a remark by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who once implied that the construction of mosques and minarets is part of a strategy to Islamize Europe. Reciting a poem by the Turkish nationalist writer Ziya Gökalp (1876-1924), Erdoğan said: "The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the faithful our soldiers."
The minaret controversy was sparked in September 2005, when the Turkish cultural association in Wangen bei Olten, a small town in northern Switzerland, applied for a permit to erect a minaret on the roof of the local mosque. The project to build the minaret, opposed by a majority of local residents, was rejected by the town's building and planning commission in September 2006.
The Turkish cultural association — possibly with encouragement from the Turkish government — subsequently filed an appeal; it claimed that the local building authorities were motivated by religious bias. The case eventually made its way to the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland (Bundesgericht), which in July 2007 ruled that construction of the minaret could proceed. The six-meter (20-foot) tower was erected in January 2009. This chain of events led to the formation of the Egerking Committee and prompted campaigners to gather the 100,000 signatures needed to launch the popular initiative against minarets.
Since then, the influence of Islam in Switzerland has steadily increased. The Muslim population of Switzerland has grown by more than 30% during the past decade and now exceeds half a million people, or approximately six percent of the total population, according to the Pew Research Center. If current migration trends continue, the Muslim population of Switzerland is set to more than double by 2050, to more than one million, according to Pew forecasts; with a high migration scenario, it is set to triple to more than 1.5 million.
The number of mosques in Switzerland has also increased since the 2009 referendum. The country is now home to at least 240 mosques, according to the University of Luzern. Some of the larger mosques are believed to be financed by foreign governments, including those of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and some Gulf Arab states:
June 2020. Saïda Keller-Messahli, one of the most prominent Islam experts in Switzerland, revealed that an Albanian-Islamic mega-mosque being built in Reinach, a small town in northern canton of Aargau, was being financed by Turkey and Kuwait. She said that dozens of Albanian mosques were springing up across Switzerland and being used by Turkey and other Muslim countries to spread an "arch-conservative Islam."
January 2020. A Swiss-Muslim board of directors assumed management of the Geneva Mosque, the largest mosque in Switzerland, after Swiss and French authorities determined that four imams employed there were Islamic extremists. The mosque was built by Saudi Arabia and financed by the Muslim World League. Henceforth, the mosque is to be financed by exclusively by Muslims from Switzerland.
November 2019. Research by the Swiss Center for Islam and Society (Schweizerischen Zentrum für Islam und Gesellschaft, SZIG) at the University of Fribourg found that 130 foreign imams are active in Switzerland. Almost all are Sunni Muslims, and nearly half are of Turkish origin. The Albanian-speaking community — mainly from Kosovo and northern Macedonia — are catered to by 40 imams, 30 of whom work full-time. There are also 13 imams of Bosnian origin, and 15 to 20 from the Arab world.
April 2019. French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, in their book "Qatar Papers," reported that between 2011 and 2014, Qatar Charity, an NGO funded by the Qatari royal family, provided more than 4 million Swiss Francs ($4 million) to finance five Islamic megaprojects in Switzerland. The projects include the 22-million-franc Museum of Islamic Civilizations in La Chaux-de-Fonds (Neuchâtel canton), the Lausanne Islamic Cultural Center (Vaud canton) and the Islamic Center of Biel (Bern canton).
After the scope of Qatari involvement in Swiss Muslim affairs became public, Qatar reportedly stopped funding Islamic projects in Switzerland. Mohamed Karmous, founder of the Swiss Muslim Cultural Institute, the organization through which the Qatari funds were apparently being channeled, said that such financing had ended.
September 2018. Swiss Radio and Television (SRF) reported that the Islamic Community of Zurich (Stiftung Islamische Gemeinschaft Zürich, SIGZ) was receiving 200,000 Swiss Francs ($200,000) annually from the United Arab Emirates. The mosque is owned by Abu Dhabi, which also chooses the mosque's imam.
SRF also reported that the Turkish government is paying the salaries of 35 full-time imams in Switzerland. The imams are coordinated by the Turkish Embassy in Bern and the Zurich-based Turkish-Islamic Foundation for Switzerland (Türkisch-Islamischen Stiftung für die Schweiz, TISS), which is controlled by the Turkish government's Directorate for Religious Affairs, known in Turkish as Diyanet.
May 2018. The lower house of the Swiss parliament narrowly rejected (96 to 90 and seven abstentions) a motion to outlaw the direct or indirect financing of mosques, Islamic prayer rooms and other Islamic centers in Switzerland by states that are alleged to support terrorist groups or violate human rights. The Federal Council, the seven-member executive council that constitutes the federal government of Switzerland, argued that such a ban would place all Muslims in the country under a general suspicion and that Muslim communities "must be able to exercise their right to freedom of religion and association under the same conditions as the other religious communities."
Foreign imams in Switzerland have also been under increased scrutiny:
December 4, 2019. The public prosecutor in Bern opened a criminal investigation into a 66-year-old Libyan imam, Abu Ramadan, for allegedly committing welfare fraud. He was sued by the municipality of Nidau after receiving more than 590,000 Swiss Francs ($590,000) in social welfare assistance between 2003 and 2017. He is accused of concealing income worth tens of thousands of francs that would have led to a lower allocation of welfare benefits.
October 15, 2019. The Federal Supreme Court upheld a decision by a court in St. Gallen to not renew the residence permit of an imam from Kosovo who was found guilty of physically and sexually abusing his wife and prohibiting her from venturing out of the home without his consent. The court judged that the imam had not assimilated Switzerland's social and legal values and did not respect them.
October 8, 2019. The Office of the Attorney General of Lucerne launched an investigation into a 38-year-old Iraqi imam at the Dar Assalam mosque in Kriens. He is alleged to have advised his followers to beat disobedient wives. The investigation was launched after the newspaper SonntagsZeitung reported that the man allegedly suggested disciplining women with physical violence if non-violent methods fail. He also reportedly called for respect for Sharia law. The investigation was later dropped due to a lack of evidence.
In the wake of the incident, the Dar Assalam organization, which represents the Islamic community in central Switzerland, recommended that all sermons and prayers be recorded and stored for 12 months.