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  • Dominic Gilonis

Radical Modesty: The Swiss face coverings ban, Islam and European secularism


Face coverings are an odd thing to ban in the midst of the global pandemic. Yet, Switzerland has voted to do just that by a narrow margin of 51.8%. The debate, of course, did not centre on surgical masks but religious (specifically Muslim) head coverings. Posters depicting angry women in burqas with slogans such as ‘Reject radicalism!’ imply what the debate was about. While commentators have been quick to compare this to similar bans across Europe, there remain marked differences to be highlighted. It is also true that there have been fierce debates about veils and secularism, but to use the state to make this decision seems unwise for any country that hopes to maintain a commitment to what one might consider freedom of religion.

The veil has been a flashpoint in public debates on Islam and modernity for decades, not just in Europe but across the world. The revolutionary Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nassar mocked the Muslim Brotherhood’s demands that women be forced to wear the veil. In Turkey, the ‘father of the Turks,’ Mustafa Kemal Atatürk enforced what’s known as the Hat Revolution in 1925 where wearing the veil and its male counterpart, the fez, in public was discouraged. It would also be in Turkey that the modern idea of the veil as a voluntary expression of religious commitment would be clearly formulated as Erdogan and other moderate Islamists used it to expose the contradictions of Kemalist secularism. This dialogue has informed its sister discourses in western Europe, yet there still remains internal division over whether the veil has a place in Islam.

Switzerland has had its own difficult history with religion, given the country's popular view. The nation is predominantly Christian, split between Catholics and Reformed Calvinists. The 1848 Constitution was adopted following a brief religious civil war that ended in a Protestant victory. Their victory, in turn, restricted Catholic institutions, which were only lifted in 1970. While it is ostensibly secular, all but two cantons have their own official churches. In some respects, it is a rather insular and xenophobic country. A complex dynamic marks its relationship with Islam between popular Christianity backed by mass democracy in an officially secular state; in 2009, a referendum banned the construction of new minarets while until recently, posters by the SVP (a right-populist party) used an image of a white sheep kicking out a black sheep to warn about mass immigration. However, this looks to be on the decline; the 2009 majority was much larger, and the SVP’s rhetoric has toned down somewhat recently.

It should be noted that while it is tempting to view this as just another ‘burqa ban’, there is something different to note here. Other countries to have instituted bans are Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and France, the lattermost opting for the strictest ban. Each (except perhaps Austria) has had a tricky relationship with Islam. Denmark, the Netherlands and France have all experienced gruesome terror attacks from Islamic extremists, while Bulgaria was subject to a Muslim empire for much of its history, enduring quite a prolonged attempt to Islamise the region. Each, therefore, generally has societies suspicious of Islam and wary of its symbols. France has added to this a long history of strict secularism known as laicite; summarised as ‘freedom from religion.’ It also held a long-standing suspicion of religion for most of its post-Revolutionary history, banning religious symbols such as crucifixes from public buildings.

Switzerland hasn’t experienced these; there haven’t been notable attacks on its soil, and there isn’t a history of consistent secularism targeting other religions. The question is, then, why is the veil a target? In part, I would say it is because of its being quite so alien to western liberal sensibilities and identities. The veil seems overtly religious in societies that, while they might favour private religion, are suspicious of public religion. There is the assumption that such garments must be misogynistic too, which is uncomfortable for societies with superficial commitments to gender equality. Several feminist groups supported the referendum, despite it being brought by the SVP. Even some Muslims did, including Imam Mustafa Memeti, who claimed it was necessary to force Islam to ‘emancipate’ women so it could better integrate into European society.

These concerns perhaps miss the point though; is it the place of the state to make or enforce these social decisions? My answer would be negative on three grounds. First, forcing someone to not wear the burqa isn’t enormously worse than forcing them to wear it; autonomy should be respected, even if we do not like the consequences. The second is that the state can only provide crude, un-nuanced responses to extremely complex social issues, so it would be best to leave it to individuals and smaller communities to work this out amongst themselves. Last, such bans are likely to force Muslim communities to turn inwards if they feel excluded or marginalised; this will not lead to the integration Memeti desires, but instead, a fractured society.

Image: Flickr



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