A rightwing-backed initiative seeking to ban any face-covering headgear in Switzerland is a pretext to attack Islam, according to the president of the Federal Commission against Racism, Martine Brunschwig Graf.
“Hidden faces disturb me but the issue should not necessarily be subject to a ban. In France it hasn’t resolved anything,” declared Brunschwig Graf in an interview in Tuesday’s edition of the French-speaking Tribune de Genève and 24Heures newspapers.
A group of rightwing politicians that was behind the successful 2009 vote to ban the building of new minarets launched a ‘burka ban’ initiative in March 2016. It has until September 15, 2017 to collect at least 100,000 signatures to try to force a nationwide vote.
Their initiative follows a ban in Italian-speaking Ticino, which on July 1 became the first and only of Switzerland’s 26 cantons to introduce a ‘burka ban’ on any face-covering headgear.
The president of the national anti-racism committee said the issue is interesting and deserves proper debate, including on the issue of Islam in Switzerland. But the problem, she added, is that the current discussion simply acts as a sounding board for politicians and there is no room for nuance.
“We have already experienced this situation with the anti-minaret initiative,” she declared.
She said confusion made between religion and terrorism should be rejected, as it can lead to discrimination and the situation getting out of hand.
“Just read the comments on social networks to see how people feel they can talk freely on this issue… some even say wearing the niqab [headwear] is like supporting terrorism,” said Brunschwig Graf.
And it is naive to think a ban on face-covering headgear would advance women’s rights in countries like Saudi Arabia, she went on.
The debate surrounding the burkini swimwear also goes too far, she added: “A burkini allows women to go to the beach and to feel liberated, and not the opposite.”
The Geneva-based United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Tuesday welcomed a decision by France's highest administrative court to suspend a controversial ban on burkinis, warning that the ban had fuelled religious intolerance and stigmatization.
Voters back ban
A recent online survey conducted by the Sunday newspapers SonntagsZeitung and Le Matin Dimanche among 15,824 Swiss voters found that 71% of the Swiss population would support a nationwide ban on the wearing of veils or any kind of clothing that hides the face in public.
The idea of a national ban gained 72% support in German-speaking Switzerland and 70% in French-speaking Switzerland. Women approved nearly as much as men.
There was 85% support for the idea in Ticino. In 2013, about 65% of the canton’s residents agreed to make the wearing of face-covering headgear in public punishable by a CHF10,000 ($10,200) fine.
The controversial move reflects some of the deep anxieties over immigration and security that have been simmering in Switzerland and around Europe in the past decade. In 2010, France was the first European country to ban the full-face Islamic veil in public places. The European Court of Human Rights has since upheld the law. Similar bans have been imposed in Belgium and in several places in Italy, Russia and Spain.
The governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have called on their citizens to abide by the various bans on religious dress in different parts of Europe, including Ticino.
The burka and niqab, frequently worn in Afghan regions, cover all but the wearer’s eyes, while the hijab is a scarf worn only over the head. The tschador, traditionally Iranian in origin, covers the entire body except the face.
Muslims constitute about 5% of Switzerland's more than 8 million population. Most Muslim immigrants came from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. The community includes up to 100 nationalities. Burkas and other full face-covering headgear are rare in Switzerland.
Swissinfo.ch with agencies