The Irish Times view on Switzerland’s veil ban: pluralism in retreat

Switzerland follows France, which banned wearing a full face veil in public in 2011, and partial bans in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark and the Netherlands

Demonstrators in Bern hold a sign reading “against racist anti-muslim, sexist, normalisation” during a protest after the face-veil ban referendum was narrowly approved by the Swiss electorate on Sunday. Photograph: Peter Klaunzer/Keystone via AP

Demonstrators in Bern hold a sign reading “against racist anti-muslim, sexist, normalisation” during a protest after the face-veil ban referendum was narrowly approved by the Swiss electorate on Sunday. Photograph: Peter Klaunzer/Keystone via AP

 

Of Switzerland’s 450,000 Muslims – one in 20 of the country’s population, according to a recent study – perhaps as many as 37 wear the Muslim partial veil or niqab. None are known to wear the burqa.

Yet, such is the perceived threat of the extremist danger represented by these few that Swiss voters have opted by a narrow majority – 52 per cent – to ban the wearing of both in public places. The referendum, triggered by a 200,000-strong petition, will now incorporate the result into the Swiss constitution. It sees Switzerland following France, which banned wearing a full face veil in public in 2011, and partial bans in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark and the Netherlands.

While the poll was opposed by the majority in parliament and the government, it was vigorously supported by the country’s largest party, the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party and follows the 2009 ban enacted by similar means on new minarets at mosques.

Walter Wobmann initiator of burqa ban initiative speaks to the media in Bern, Switezrland on March 7th. Photograph: Peter Klaunzer/EPA
Walter Wobmann, initiator of burqa ban initiative, speaks to the media in Bern, Switzerland on March 7th. Photograph: Peter Klaunzer/EPA

“Today’s decision opens old wounds, further expands the principle of legal inequality and sends a clear signal of exclusion to the Muslim minority,” the Central Council of Muslims said in a statement. And a major hospitality industry group warned of the effect on Muslim tourism to the country.

The veil ban issue unites a broad coalition, from right-wing nationalists and Islamophobes to the militant secularist left where it is characterised as an ostentatious promotion of fanatical religious views. These need to be suppressed to protect the fabric of precisely the multicultural society that the former so despise. Some feminists are also enlisted to the cause by claims, disputed by Muslim women, that the obligation to wear the veil is a tool in the oppression of women.

That such an unholy alliance can win a majority in a predominantly liberal society is a disappointing reflection on the failure again of political leaders, anxious not to be outflanked by the populist right, robustly to defend the essential truth of pluralism, that it requires us to embrace cultural difference, not to force others into our square boxes.

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