Swiss ‘burka ban’ vote creates waves in international press

Wealthy tourists from the Gulf region won't be allowed to wear the Niqab in Geneva or anywhere else in Switzerland. Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi

Swiss voters’ decision to ban face coverings a week ago has provoked starkly different reactions in the international press. While some called it a sign of rising Islamophobia, others saw it as part of a wider debate happening in many countries, not just in Europe.

This content was published on March 17, 2021 - 16:25

On March 7, Swiss voters accepted the “burka ban” initiative by a narrow margin of 51.7%. Many media outlets around the globe from the New York Times to the Pakistani paper Express Tribune covered it.

“The vote result was reported in a largely factual and balanced manner, even by the media in Muslim countries,” noted Nicolas Bideau, who is the head of Presence Switzerland.

For the most part, the articles emphasised the tight result and the fact that Switzerland joins some other European countries in banning the wearing of the full veil. Some media also acknowledged the unusual configuration of political forces that clashed during the vote. “The initiative of the populist right was only able to pass thanks to the fortuitous support of certain left-wing voters who were sensitive to the feminist argument," commented the French paper Le MondeExternal link.

Criticism from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which condemned the Swiss vote as discriminatory also gained some visibility.

Symbolic decision

Some international media outlets published critical commentaries or analysis in the days that followed the vote. The German investigative magazine Der SpiegelExternal link said, for example, that the decision by the Swiss people sent a “bitter signal” to the Muslim community. “Once again, the populists of a European country succeeded in stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment and in drawing from this sentiment a regulation that changes little in terms of content, but a lot in terms of symbolism," commented the weekly. It noted that only about 30 women, according to Swiss government estimates, wear the niqab in the country.

The Pakistani newspaper DawnExternal link didn’t hesitate to compare the banning of the veil to the “quest for purity” pursued by the fascists in power in several European countries during the mid-20th century. “Instead of promoting integration and co-existence, such measures will only widen the gap between ethnic and religious majorities and minorities in Europe,” lamented the media outlet.

The Berlin daily TazExternal link saw the vote as a "loss for the open and caring society in Switzerland". The editorial argued that the ban doesn’t help anyone. "On the contrary, it harms the few already marginalised women who wear the niqab in Switzerland and who are now suddenly liable to be prosecuted."

A few media outlets in Muslim countries also portrayed the burka ban as evidence of rising Islamophobia in Switzerland. "Scandalous referendum in Switzerland, where hostility against Islamic values resurfaces," headlined the Turkish newspaper Milli GazeteExternal link. For the Pakistani newspaper Express TribuneExternal link, those behind the initiative only sought to "demonise Muslims and immigrants".

However, there were some positive comments in the foreign press, notably in the conservative British magazine The SpectatorExternal link. The newspaper points out that some Muslim-majority countries also ban the full veil, such as Chad and Tunisia, citing secular values. "It is time to stop accusing countries like Switzerland and France of being Islamophobic", wrote the media.

Image damage?

It’s not the first time that the Swiss decision on issue related to Islam made headlines abroad. In 2009, the “yes” to the ban on the construction of minarets was also highly publicized. The latter decision, however, attracted more criticism than the recent burka ban vote, noted the director of Presence Switzerland.

“The foreign media considered the minaret as an important symbol of Islam. The full veil has less of a symbolic dimension,” Bideau said.

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