Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

The Swiss burqa ban and the erosion of democratic values

The true test of a free society is not whether we can merely tolerate each other, but whether we can enjoy the freedoms to pursue our beliefs, values and interests

Suddha Chakravartti
4 May 2021, 12.00am
A campaign poster reading ‘Stop extremism!’ in Vevey Switzerland, March 2021
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Richard Juilliart / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

On Sunday 7 March 2021, the Swiss voted to ban face coverings in public spaces. The vote approved a public initiative, spearheaded by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), to insert a clause into the Swiss constitution outlawing various forms of face coverings in public settings. It may seem like a general aim, but in reality – by prohibiting the burqa and niqab in public places – it was a targeted attack against a specific community.

With a slim majority of 51.2% in favour of the ban, Switzerland now joins Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France and the Netherlands, in passing laws that target religious attire in western Europe.

The result was surprising because the Swiss usually reject people’s initiatives. A cornerstone of direct democracy, people’s initiatives at the federal level in Switzerland can be launched by collecting 100,000 signatures. In the past 130 years, the Swiss have voted on 219 initiatives, but approved only 23.

However, the current Swiss vote mirrors the recent political struggles and polarisation in Europe on many issues, including extremism, secularism, freedoms, security, culture and identity. It comes a decade after another controversial vote, banning the construction of minarets, took place in 2009. The current campaign was promoted by the SVP using captions such as “Stop Extremism” and “Stop Radical Islam”.

Proponents of the ban, including far-Right parties as well as some feminist groups, pointed out that face coverings were a security issue, discriminated against women and their right to wear what they like, and contravened Swiss values. Those opposing the ban – the government, certain liberal political parties and other feminist groups – argued that it was not up to the state to interfere in people’s personal choice of clothing.

Also, in the Swiss decentralised political system, it is the responsibility of the country’s independent cantons, not the federal government, to legislate on matters of law and public order (and some already have, with two cantons having already voted to ban face coverings).

False arguments

In my opinion, the outcome of the vote is a blow for democracy, personal liberty and democratic values in Switzerland. The reasons for the ban are ideological and value-based, not based on reality. First, only 5% of the Swiss population (approximately 400,000 people) are Muslims, hardly any of them wear the burqa and only a few dozen wear the niqab. Given the circumstances, a constitutional vote was not warranted.

The second clichéd argument concerns public security. The narrative that somehow face coverings represent a threat to security is misleading, at best. If a freedom is to be encroached upon for security reasons, there must be clear evidence and justification for the encroachment. Otherwise, the security argument is nothing but smoke and mirrors.

There appears to be no causal link between a person’s attire and their propensity to be a serious security threat. A ban on the burqa and niqab does not relate to any real security concerns, but to xenophobic tendencies – where certain groups and minorities are assumed guilty until proven innocent because of their personal choice of attire.

The third point concerns the issue of gender discrimination. While many argue that the burqa and niqab represent historic and forced enslavement, many Muslim women wear them out of their own choice and free will, and sometimes even against the wishes of their male relatives.

The vote mirrors the recent political struggles and polarisation in Europe on issues of extremism, secularism, freedoms, security, culture and identity.

Isn’t it elitist for us to judge what women should or should not wear – or should or should not do – without giving credence to their personal choices and beliefs? Arguing that women who wear the burqa or niqab miss out on economic and public opportunities (and therefore the garments should be banned) is also ambiguous. The argument is analogous to banning face tattoos or piercings, or any other alternative lifestyles that people choose to follow of their own free will.

Eroding Swiss values?

Finally – the arguments concerning assimilation, identity and the erosion of Swiss values. The view that banning the burqa and niqab in public places will improve assimilation to the “Swiss way of life” is also misleading.

The argument manifests a crude way of understanding and accepting assimilation as being something that displays homogeneity. Those in favour of the ban have argued that covering one’s face is contrary to “Swiss values” – but if one truly values freedom of expression, personal choice and minimising the role of the state in private matters (all important Swiss values, surely), such an attitude merely reflects the tyranny of the majority.

The true test of an open and free society is not whether we can merely tolerate each other, but whether, within the bounds of the law, we can enjoy the greatest extent of freedoms to pursue our beliefs, values and interests, even at the peril of offending others.

In the specific context of Switzerland, the vote to outlaw face coverings does little for public safety, gender discrimination, assimilation or the preservation of Swiss values. In fact, it does quite the opposite by eroding personal freedom and choice and undermining Switzerland’s longstanding position as a free and open society.

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