Swiss voters narrowly supported a ban on burqas and other full-face coverings in one of the most contentious referendums yet in the country’s unique system of direct democracy, and a further sign that a pushback against Islam is gaining ground in Europe.
A wafer-thin majority of 51% of those taking part voted to outlaw full-face coverings in public compared with 49% against, according to provisional officials results of Sunday’s vote, though face-masks to slow the spread of Covid-19 will be permitted, and burqas and niqab veils will still be allowed to be worn in places of worship.
Switzerland’s government had opposed the proposal, and some opponents of the ban accused right-wing groups of using the issue to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment. During the campaign period, Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter remarked that “you’d almost think we live in Kabul,” while supporters described the possibility that women might wear face coverings as a break with Swiss values.
Some cantons, or states, of the Alpine nation previously outlawed full-face coverings in regional votes. A nationwide referendum in 2009 also saw Swiss voters support a proposal to ban the construction of minarets for mosques.
This time, right-wingers, including the Swiss People’s Party, collected more than 100,000 signatures required to trigger a vote on changing the constitution, and won the support of some feminist groups and moderate Muslims, including Saida Keller-Messahli, who founded a group called Forum for a Progressive Islam.
The Swiss People’s Party was also the driving force behind the vote on minarets, describing them as foreign to Swiss cultural traditions and adding to a wider debate in Europe about the integration of Muslims.
That debate continues in many parts of Europe. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has pushed legislation to outlaw what he calls “Islamist separatism,” and includes measures to prevent the indoctrination of children during home schooling.
France and other countries also have prohibiting full-face veils in public as a way to support secular values, while anti-immigrant sentiment contributed to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
Switzerland’s government, in contrast, urged voters to reject a ban on full-face coverings. It pointed to the country’s relatively small Muslim population, which comprises around 5% of its 8.5 million people, and warned against the impact it could have on its tourism industry. Switzerland’s lakes are popular among wealthy visitors from the Gulf states.
A coalition of left-leaning opposing the ban put up posters around the country declaring the proposal to be, “Absurd. Useless. Islamophobic.” Some, including Tamara Funicello of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party, objected to the idea that the government could tell women what they could and couldn’t wear.
Andreas Tunger-Zanetti, a researcher on Islam at the University of Luzern, conducted a survey last year that found that most of the Muslims in Switzerland trace their roots to the Balkans region and few, if any, wear burqas, and only a few dozen wear a veil.
The Swiss government is now obligated to begin work on legislation outlawing all full-face coverings in public places, with exceptions for places of worship, health reasons, and traditional celebrations such as Carnival. It had proposed a softer approach that would require people to show their face to authorities if necessary for identification purposes.
Switzerland’s referendums often touch on sensitive issues. Another vote could be held as soon as June on whether to roll back the government’s powers to impose lockdowns and other measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
They are also used to resolve more run-of-the-mill matters. Last year, the Swiss voted on increasing the stock of low-cost housing, tax allowances for children and whether to expand the hunting of wolves. Voters Sunday also approved a free-trade agreement with Indonesia.
Proposals require a majority of voters and cantons to pass into law. Voters can cast their ballots in person at voting booths, by mail, and online.
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