EXPLAINED: What is Switzerland’s ‘anti-burqa’ initiative all about?

Swiss voters will go to the ballot box on March 7th to weigh in on three issues. One of the most controversial ones is the so-called ‘anti-burqa’ initiative.

EXPLAINED: What is Switzerland’s ‘anti-burqa’ initiative all about?
A campaign poster to ban burqas in Switzerland. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

What is this issue about?

The ‘Yes to a ban on full facial coverings’ initiative seeks to outlaw both religious and non-religious forms of facial concealment in public spaces.

It is ironic, of course, that currently everyone from the age of 12 must be wearing masks which, in itself, are a form of facial concealment.

OPINION: Switzerland’s ‘burka ban’ curtails rather than strengthens individual freedoms

However, this particular initiative applies to total disguise, as in burqa or niqab, both of which cover women’s faces to different degrees.

Exemptions would apply to religious sites, health reasons or in the event of particular weather conditions.

Who is backing this initiative?

A group called the Egerkingen Committee is behind the drive to outlaw burqas and other forms of Muslim wear that conceal the face.

The group consists of members of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has a long history of anti-Muslim actions, including the highly contentious 2009 referendum to ban the construction of minarets on Switzerland’s mosques.

The measure was accepted by Swiss voters. 

“The full veil is closely linked to radical Islamist ideology and is contrary to our way of life,” said Walter Wobmann, chairman of the Egerkingen committee. “

“In our culture, it is customary to show your face in public space. Hiding your face violates social order”, he noted.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is at stake in Switzerland’s March 7th referendums? 

Who is opposing this measure?

All of Switzerland’s other major political parties have spoken against the ban.

Centrist and left-leaning parties have formed a committee which campaigns against this move.

“Clothing regulations have no place in the Federal Constitution. The initiative tackles a false problem, ignores existing rules and stokes social tensions. In addition, it intrudes on private life and does not take into account cantonal disparities. Politicians from all major parties therefore oppose this populist proposal”, the committee wrote on its website.

The government is also urging voters to defeat this proposal, arguing that it goes too far.

Instead, the Federal Council and the parliament have created a counter-proposal, which require persons to show their faces to the police or other officials if this is necessary for identification purposes.

“The counter-proposal, which can only come into force if the initiative is rejected, would also introduce measures aimed at improving women’s rights,” authorities said.

Are burqas really a problem in Switzerland?

The opponents of the initiative point out that in Switzerland, no woman wears what is called ‘burqa’, that is to say, a full veil that also hides the eyes with a grid.

“According to a recent study, in addition to Arab tourists, there are 20 to 30 women in Switzerland wearing the niqab. The majority of niqab wearers in Switzerland are socialised in the West, have an average to very good education and wear the niqab out of conviction”, not to spearhead radical Muslim ideas, they say.

In all, Muslims account for just over 5 percent of Switzerland’s population of 8.6 million people, and form the third largest religion group after the dominant Roman Catholic and Protestant communities, although just 50,000 are estimated to worship openly.

READ MORE: Switzerland to hold a referendum on ending coronavirus restrictions 

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Swiss decision to purchase US fighter jets could force second referendum

Switzerland's decision to purchase US-made fighter jets could be put to a referendum,

Swiss decision to purchase US fighter jets could force second referendum
Swiss fighter jets. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Switzerland’s government on Wednesday backed the purchase of 36 F-35A fighter jets from Lockheed Martin to replace its fleet and five Patriot air defence units from fellow US manufacturer Raytheon.

Switzerland’s current air defence equipment will reach the end of its service life in 2030 and has been undergoing a long and hotly-contested search for replacements.

“The Federal Council is confident that these two systems are the most suitable for protecting the Swiss population from air threats in the future,” the government said in a statement.

‘No Trump fighter jets’: Swiss don’t want to buy American planes

The decision will now be put to the Swiss parliament — and also risks being challenged at the ballot box, with left-wingers and an anti-militarist group looking to garner enough signatures to trigger a public vote.

The F-35A was chosen ahead of the Airbus Eurofighter; the F/A-18 Super Hornet by Boeing; and French firm Dassault’s Rafale.

For the ground-based air defence (GBAD) system, Patriot was selected ahead of SAMP/T by France’s Eurosam.

“An evaluation has revealed that these two systems offer the highest overall benefit at the lowest overall cost,” the government statement said. Switzerland is famously neutral. However, its long-standing position is one of armed neutrality and the landlocked European country has mandatory conscription for men.

“A fleet of 36 aircraft would be large enough to cover Switzerland’s airspace protection needs over the longer term in a prolonged situation of heightened tensions,” the government said.

“The air force must be able to ensure that Swiss airspace cannot be used by foreign parties in a military conflict.” 

Long path to decision 

Switzerland began to seek replacements for its ageing fleet of fighter jets more than a decade ago, but the issue has become caught up in a political battle in the wealthy Alpine nation.

The Swiss government has long argued for the need to quickly replace its 30 or so F/A-18 Hornets, which will reach the end of their lifespan in 2030, and the F-5 Tigers, which have been in service for four decades and are not equipped for night flights.

In 2014, the country looked set to purchase 22 Gripen E fighter jets from Swedish group Saab, only to see the public vote against releasing the funds needed to go forward with the multi-billion-dollar deal.

Bern launched a new selection process four years later, and a referendum last year to release six billion Swiss francs ($6.5 billion) for the purchase of the fighters of the government’s choice squeezed through with 50.1 percent of voters in favour.

During the referendum campaign, the government warned that without a swift replacement for its fleet, “Switzerland will no longer be in a position to protect and even less defend its airspace by 2030”.

Currently, the fleet does not have the capacity to support ground troops for reconnaissance missions or to intervene against ground targets.

Meanwhile Switzerland’s current GBAD system is also old and lacks the capacity to meet the widening spectrum of modern threats.

The military currently relies on a range of Rapier and Stinger short-range missiles that have been in service since 1963.