An Example of Islamophobia? Analysing the Swiss Ban on Face Coverings
With the increasing number of Muslims in the European continent, the rise of Islamophobia has impacted the daily lives of Muslims living on the continent. The article elaborates on the link between Islamophobia present at the societal level and its manifestation at the political and institutional level. One such pertinent example is Switzerland which is known to have conducted referendums to ban Muslim places and religious rituals e.g. Minarets and veils (Burqa/ Head scarf).
An Example of Islamophobia? Analysing the Swiss Ban on Face Coverings
Islamophobia can be defined as a climate of anti-Muslim feelings or the fear and hatred of Muslims and Islam in Western countries (Ogan, Willnat, Rosemary & Bashir, 2013, p.2). In Europe, this form of discrimination is a salient issue, as the Muslim population in the continent has increased dramatically. After World War II, the number of Muslims in Europe was less than a million, yet by the start of the 21st century there were approximately 15 million Muslims, with Islam being the second most-supported religion in the continent (Pettersson, 2007, p.71). Paul Lubeck (2002) has identified three influxes of their migration: firstly due to Muslim countries becoming European colonies, secondly due to Muslim labour migration in the post-war era, and finally due to family reunions, asylum-seeking, and illegal underground entries.
As Islamophobia has grown in European societies, it has also started manifesting at a political and institutional level (Bayrakli & Hafez, 2016). An example is the 2017 ruling of the European Court of Justice in regard to Case C-157/15, in which it was determined that “an internal rule (…) which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination” (Court of Justice of the European Union, 2017, p.1). According to experts, this ruling has affected Muslim women the most, with Amnesty International arguing that this decision would propel increased discrimination based on religious identity (Bayrakli & Hafez, 2016, p.11). However, beyond contested intergovernmental measures, distinct European countries have also had a history of Islamophobia. One of these countries is Switzerland which, although not a European Union Member State, is still affected by these migration influxes.
It Started with Minarets
According to authors Vista Eskandari and Elisa Banfi (2017, p.55), the events of September 11th 2001 highly damaged the image of Muslims in Switzerland. These prejudices grew stronger over the following decade and culminated with a popular initiative against minarets, pushed by the extreme-right Swiss People’s Party (SPP) from 2007 until 2009. Although only four minarets stood in Switzerland at the time (Haenni & Lathion, 2009), construction plans to build at least three more propelled support for a ban through a referendum in 2009 (Wyler, 2017, p.414). This aligned with a general build-up of anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, following the 2004 headscarf debate in France, as well as the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the 2005 London bomb attacks.
The banning of minarets was the winning result in the 2009 referendum, although this was highly polarising. It garnered opposition from the United Nations’ human rights chief, diverse human rights organisations, as well as policy-makers and representatives of Muslim governments, although it also received support from European conservative parties, who took the result as a win (Wyler, 2017, p.415). However, the minaret referendum would not be the last time that this type of voting took place in Switzerland.
And it went on, this time against full-face coverings
In 2013, there were an estimated 350,000 Muslims in Switzerland, out of which around 130 Muslim women wore a burqa (Eugster, 2021, p.713). However, in 2015 a nationwide initiative to ban the veil was launched by the same party responsible for the minaret ban, the SPP, as they considered veiling a symbol of “radical Islam” (Hughes, 2015). The voting took place in March 2021 and, once again, Swiss voters approved the ban - this time by a narrow 51.2 per cent of the votes (“Swiss Vote to Outlaw Facial Coverings”, 2021). This decision followed the introduction of legislation in both France and Belgium in 2011, similarly prohibiting clothing that covered large parts of the face (Brems, Vrielink & Chaib, 2013, p.75).
To understand how Switzerland came to approve of such a ban, it is necessary to expose the arguments of both parties. Those who voted in favour of the ban argued that Muslim face coverings (such as burqas and niqabs), represent the oppression and subjugation of women under men, being an expression of a patriarchal system (De Rossa & Ferrario, 2021, p.2803). Moreover, they proposed that this would support women’s emancipation and prevent their dehumanisation, as they contended that Muslim women wear the veil as an obligation, dictated by their husbands and male family members (De Rossa & Ferrario, 2021, p.2804). Another reason for supporting the ban was the impact that the veil can have on other Muslims that have chosen not to wear one, as some unveiled Muslim women felt pressured and shamed when in presence of a veiled woman (De Rossa & Ferrario, 2021, p.2804). These arguments can be attributed to what author Sara Farris (2017, p.3) describes as an encounter between anti-Islam agendas and the emancipatory rhetoric of women’s rights, which can be traced to the War on Terror and the West’s logic that perceived Muslim women as victims.
On the other hand, those who voted against the ban saw all contrary arguments as biased and prejudiced, instead favouring a secular narrative of the West. From this perspective, it was argued that Muslim women wear the veil to manifest their religious identity, to connect with their roots, or in solidarity with their peers - as narrated by hijab wearer Afshan D’souza Lodhi in Mariam Khan’s It’s Not About the Burqa (2019). Furthermore, this view centres veiling as an issue of freedom of expression, as Muslim women deserve the right to make an autonomous decision about the veil (Baldi, 2016, p.178), and imposing that decision - whether it be from religion, society, or the State - is hardly a viable solution (De Rossa & Ferrario, 2021, p.2806).
As of yet, the latter argument has failed to win the hearts of Europeans - having garnered limited success in both of the cases discussed. This may be due to the fact that the use of a gender equality-based argument is capable of appealing to both sides of the political spectrum - providing a more socially acceptable answer as to why conservatives may want to ban face coverings and winning over certain liberals due to its egalitarian and saviour nature.
Islamophobia within Europe remains a complex social and legal issue to discuss, with the arguments of both sides necessitating scrutiny and exploration. In Switzerland, the banning of both minarets and the veil won largely due to conservatives, who voted in favour of the bans due to the belief that each was a symbol of radical Islam. However, the ban on the veil was also influenced by a faction of liberals, who perceived the veil as an attempt against Western liberal values such as gender equality and freedom (Eugster, 2021, p.715). Both of these views can be understood as relating to Europe’s growing femonnationalism which, returning to Sara Farris (2017, p.4), refers “both to the exploitation of feminist themes by nationalists and neoliberals in anti-Islam campaigns and to the participation of certain feminists and femocrats in the stigmatization of Muslim men under the banner of gender equality”.
As outlined in this article, Switzerland’s ban on face coverings has not been the first example of Islamophobia’s manifestation within the politics and institutions of Europe, and it seems as if it will not be the last. As of October 2022, private European companies are able to ban employees from wearing religious symbols as part of a neutrality policy, including Islamic veils and headscarves (Yun Chee, 2022). Consequently, one thing is sadly clear, which is that ethnic and religious minorities within Europe face constant questioning, yet are seemingly never made part of the discussion. Women that belong in these communities additionally suffer from being infantilised and silenced by the femonationalist narratives that dominate these debates. As such, to ensure that they are better included and able to rewrite their current position within Europe, greater attention must therefore be given to them.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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