After minarets, Swiss target the burka

If you've seen a burka in Switzerland, the chances are the wearer was a tourist Keystone

Six months after Switzerland banned the construction of minarets, parliamentarians in canton Aargau want to see a nationwide ban on Islamic full-body veils in public places.

This content was published on May 5, 2010 - 21:06

This is the latest in a series of developments – from calls for Muslim cemeteries to young Swiss converts to Islam being accused of threatening the country’s security – that has strained relations with Muslims in Switzerland.

“It confirms my fears that after a media frenzy, we’ve now got a political frenzy. And as with the minarets, there’s not much reflection going on,” Stéphane Lathion, head of a research group on Islam in Switzerland, told

“Using the law to ban something in such a blunt manner will inevitably be taken as a provocation.”

Coming a week after Belgium’s House of Representatives overwhelmingly backed a bill that considered burka-type clothing incompatible with basic security, politicians in the northern Swiss canton of Aargau passed a similar proposal by a small far-right faction by 89 votes to 33.

However, it will take months before the cantonal authorities decide whether to present an anti-burka initiative to the federal parliament.

“The burka is a symbol of dominance of men over women,” agreed Aargau's centre-right Christian Democrats, Radicals and rightwing Swiss People’s Party.

They described the burka – which, according to official estimates is worn by around 100 women in Switzerland – as an affront to women’s dignity. They also argued that it posed a security risk for banks and other institutions.

Those on the political left – the Social Democrats and the Greens – opposed the motion.

The Greens spoke of “hysteria” and “fearmongering”, while the Evangelical Party pointed out that veils are also worn at weddings and funerals.

Human rights organisation Amnesty International was critical, saying a complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion. It was also concerned that such women would be further excluded from society.


“I’m in favour of banning these full-body veils in public spaces, but what disturbs me in this media and political debate are bad arguments,” Lathion said.

“People talk of freedom for women and religious freedom, but in my opinion we shouldn’t mention religion – we should simply ban anyone from walking around in a public space if they are covered up or disguised.”

For Lathion, a more interesting and less provocative issue is that of peaceful co-existence.

“I can defend the right of a young girl to walk around wearing a scarf or a Buddhist monk to wear his robe without challenging the concept of living together harmoniously. But someone who walks around in a full-body veil is either doing it as a provocation or as a way of saying ‘I refuse to live with you’,” he said.

“Considering the current situation, with such tension surrounding anything to do with Islam, I think it would be much wiser for the authorities to ban this type of demonstration in public places.”


This tension came under the global spotlight in November 2009, when nearly 58 per cent of Swiss voters approved an initiative banning the construction of minarets.

Switzerland’s image as a country of human rights was rocked and Dick Marty, a Swiss member of the Council of Europe, told that something was “culturally wrong” in Switzerland.

In March Switzerland came in for criticism from the United Nations Human Rights Council. A resolution said the ban was a “manifestation of Islamophobia that clearly contravenes international human rights obligations concerning freedom of religion, belief, conscience and expression”.

Also in March a call by a Swiss Muslim umbrella group for Islamic cemeteries in every canton provoked a wave of reactions.

A month later the head of the Migration Office warned that some young Swiss converts to Islam – referring to the controversial Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (ICCS) – were a potential threat to the country’s security.

Alard du Bois-Reymond said such converts included people who wanted a “radically different society” and pointed to examples in Britain and Germany where such demands had provided “fertile ground for potential terrorists”.

The ICCS believes a fatwa council is needed in Switzerland as a theological authority for dealing with Islamic issues.

To top things off, Switzerland is also struggling to untangle an almost two-year diplomatic stand-off with Libya, whose leader Moammar Gaddafi recently called for a holy war against the Swiss.

Chanel burqas

As for the future, Lathion thinks it inevitable that other cantons will broach the subject – indeed Bern and Solothurn are already set to discuss it – but he believed the really interesting thing would be when the debate reached Geneva or Zurich.

“There, the fantastically rich wives or daughters of Saudi princes, who have been visiting for years, walk around covered up. Their burkas have always been accepted as they are accompanied by millions of dollars. What are we going to do with them? Will there be special dispensations for people wearing what I call Chanel burkas?”

He saw no reason why the issue wouldn’t also end up being put to the people.

“[The minaret initiative] was launched with the same logic: there are only four minarets [in all of Switzerland] and very little demand. There was no problem but we created one. There’s a risk of the same thing happening here: there are hardly any burkas in Switzerland, but we’re going to make a big deal and ban something that hardly exists,” he said.

“What disturbs me is the fact that, like in France and Belgium, a secondary phenomenon has been turned into an affair of national importance. It’s irresponsible and unprofessional on the part of the media and irresponsible for politicians to pour oil on the flames. It’s dangerous.”

Thomas Stephens,

Press reaction

Swiss editorialists on Wednesday were unanimously critical of the Aargau proposal.

A column in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung began: “Hand on heart: who has ever seen a burka in Switzerland? You might see a few Arab tourists coming out of expensive boutiques in Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse or Geneva’s Rue du Stand – but out in the sticks?”

In the journalist’s view, bans were only justified when there’s a real problem and when the law can be enforced effectively. Regarding the first point, he reckoned banning the clubbing of seals in Switzerland would make as much sense.

According to the Tages-Anzeiger, “the success of modern Switzerland is the reward for committing itself to liberal principles before many other states. Central to these principles is freedom”.

The paper concluded the ban was “futile” because it wouldn’t solve any of the genuine integration problems facing the country. “Muslim girls who are not allowed to have swimming lessons, imams who are not integrated – addressing these issues is not as sensationalist as calling for a burka ban, but it’s really important.”

“On a downward slope,” was how Le Temps in Geneva saw the situation. “A ban targeting 100 or so people would be excessive and would exacerbate the feeling of discrimination among Muslims. To remain true to its tradition of liberty, Switzerland should refuse to follow the precedents set by France, Belgium and Aargau.”

A female editorialist in the Basler Zeitung said Switzerland was behaving like Europe: nervous and exclusionary.

“This is a shame,” she said. “When it comes to living with different cultures, Switzerland is ahead of these countries. It knows what’s needed when dealing with tricky social questions: keeping a cool head. It would be a good thing if the Swiss could find this quality again.”

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Muslims in Switzerland

The Muslim community in Switzerland accounts for about 4.5% of the population.
Most Muslim immigrants came from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. The community includes up to 100 nationalities.

The number of Muslims doubled between the censuses of 1990 and 2000, largely boosted by an influx of refugees and asylum seekers, including from the war in the former Yugoslavia.

There are about 200 mosques and prayer houses in Switzerland, but only four have a minaret.
On November 29, 57 per cent of voters supported a people’s initiative to ban the construction of new minarets in Switzerland. This was in the wake of heated debates and legal battles at a local level about requests by mosques to build more minarets.

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