Menue phone

A Swiss Way to Ban the Veil: Face Covering and the Future of the Secular Order

By Reinhard Schulze

On 7 March 2021, 51.4% of the Swiss population voted in favour of the motion to insert an article into the Federal Constitution, prohibiting the covering of one’s face in public. The amendment, forming Article 10a of the Constitution, prohibits the covering of one's face in public spaces and in places that are accessible to the public, or where services are offered that can in principle be claimed by any member of the public. It is understood as a derogation from Article 10, which guarantees the right to life and to personal freedom. The new article explicitly states that no-one may force a person to cover his or her face for reasons of his or her gender. The exceptions to the new rule concern places, in this case sacred places, and motives, in this case "exclusively for reasons of health, safety, climatic conditions and native customs." Although it was highlighted in the preceding debate that the prohibition refers primarily to women who veil their faces in public in accordance with a custom they define as Islamic, the constitutional article itself makes no clear reference to the field of religion. Only in stating that "places of worship" are excluded from the regulation does it hint at a religious context.

In the debate, it was made clear that the ban was explicitly aimed at Islam. It was argued that face veiling is a symbol of misogynist Islamism, that this ideology expresses its attitude by enforcing the veil, that it thereby excludes women from public space, and that a ban on face veiling would open up new spaces for Muslim women. At the same time, it would deprive Islamism of one of its propaganda tools, and thus weaken it politically.

The implementation of this new constitutional article is likely to cause the authorities and courts many a headache. Already there are supporters of the face veil who argue that Islam has become native to Switzerland, and that for some Muslims the face veil is now part of a local religious custom. In addition, they highlight that women in Switzerland, as in France, have made the face veil a category of identity politics, and are now reformulating the wearing of the face veil as a statement of identity.


The rate of approval differed according to geographical and social circumstances, and it is clear that there was no one particular motive that was decisive for approval. The French-speaking and Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland (with the exception of the city of Geneva), the rural areas of the Central Plateau, and those mountain regions where there is no major tourism voted yes. In the metropolitan and tourist areas, however, the majority of the population voted against the motion.

Unlike the vote on the banning of minarets, on 29 November 2009, the yes vote on the veiling ban did not constitute a victory for any particular ideology. The 2009 result, in which 57.5% voted in favour of the ban, was closely linked to xenophobic, anti-Islamic politics. Eleven years later, the proposal initiators, who belong to – or are at least close to – the right-wing populist SVP, tried to build on this sentiment. This attempt to grow their support failed. The final result was very close, and in the cantons that voted in favour of the proposals in both 2009 and 2021, the proportion of yes voters nonetheless fell by an average of 8% (in the canton of Glarus it fell by as much as 15.3%). Of the cantons supporting both motions, only the traditionally more left-liberal canton of Jura increased its share of yes votes between the two referenda, doing so by almost 10%.

The map shows the ratio of the 2009 (minarets) and 2021 (veiling) votes in the cantons. The two cantons marked in red voted against both motions; the cantons coloured in blue voted in favour both times; the cantons coloured in orange switched from yes (2009) to no (2021), and the cantons coloured in green switched from no (2009) to yes (2021).

Thus, we can see that the regions that voted in favour of the initiative can be roughly divided into two camps: on the one hand, the value-conservative milieu of rural and small-town communities in the densely populated area of the Central Plateau and in those mountain regions without a dominant tourist industry; on the other hand, the left-liberal, laïcist milieu in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Even in the canton of Geneva, which voted against the motion, the proportion of yes voters nonetheless increased by almost 9% compared to the 2009 vote, therefore this finding can be applied to all French-speaking cantons.

Of course, the laïcist milieu in the West and the value-conservative milieu in the Central Plateau are worlds apart ideologically. Nonetheless, it seems as though an alliance has formed between the left-liberal defence of laïcism, and the value-conservative attitude toward exclusion. The two sides coincide on questions of positioning the state as an institution for the enforcement of religious policy measures.

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that there was a preference for the initiative's proposal in majority Catholic communities. The statistical correlation between the proportion of yes voters and the predominance of those identifying as Catholic suggests a relationship. A similar correlation value is found for the relationship between yes voters and the proportion of the population identifying itself as nondenominational. This supports the hypothesis that the majority of those who voted in favour came from a conservative, Catholic, non-urban milieu in Ticino and in German-speaking Switzerland, and from a laïcist milieu in the French-speaking part of Switzerland
Laïcism as opposed to Secularism

Secularism is based on a distinction between society and religion, with the state acting as a neutral arbiter between them; state intervention occurs only when religious actors challenge the state's sovereignty over violence, law, taxation and other such aspects of public life. Laïcism, on the other hand, places religion in opposition to the state, which determines the place of religion in society through religious policy measures, regulates it by law, and tries to keep religions out of political and public institutions as far as possible.

The laïcists considered it imperative that the states takes legal action against Islamism, which they claimed was symbolised by the face veil. They interpreted Islamism as a cohesive ideological conception, designed to undermine Switzerland's secular order. It was repeatedly claimed that this ideology was promoted by a transnational organisation of "political Islam", and that this organisation was controlled by a network of Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood was posited to be at the heart of this organisation, seeking to achieve hegemony over Islamic communities in Europe, in alliance with the Arab Gulf states and the ruling parties in Turkey. The defence of the laïcist (or secular) order was accompanied by the claim that the ban on face veils would help combat sexual violence against women, and the sexualisation of women, by the patriarchal power of an Islamic religious order. This is argued in an emphatically universalist manner, considering Islamism to be an ideology that fundamentally contradicts the universalism of the Enlightenment.

The value-conservatives directly took up the argumentation that had led to the enforcement of the ban on building minarets in 2009, namely that Islam should not claim to be present in the public sphere, and that any manifestation of a "political Islam" should be prevented. In this regard, the face veil was to be regarded as a symbol of this political Islam, which is essentially radical and extremist. By contrast, they argued, freedom requires that people be able to look each other directly in the face. Here, ‘freedom’ is ‘fundamentalised’, by referring to a Christian-Jewish tradition as the particularity, origin and essence of the people. Islam is analogously ‘fundamentalised’, by reducing it to its own particular origin, represented in the Koran and the prophetic tradition, which normatively determine that Islam is the antithesis of freedom in the present. This discourse argues in an emphatically particularistic way, and contrasts Islam with the ‘self-identity’ of the Occident or of Switzerland.

Both discourses make equal use of the state to solve their problem. However, the state is not called upon as an arbiter in an inner-societal conflict, but rather as the executive of a will that is shared by the majority of the population. This is less problematic for laïcists than for secularists, as in their conception of order they see the state as an institution of religious policy, which must ensure that a religion does not engage in public political activity.

How to locate the conflict?

The value-conservatives, however, do not adhere to such a laïcist political philosophy. However, since they take the state to task, seeking to obligate it to enforce a measure of religious policy and to sanction violations, they neither represent a classical secularist position. Secularism in this case would rather mean not making the state a party in a conflict between religion and society, but instead assigning it the role of arbiter. Its role in a conflict would be to provide instruments for settling the dispute. Thus, if society finds it disturbing that certain Islamic orthodox communities encourage women to wear a face veil, then a secular solution would see the state helping the Islamic religious community to debate this conflict internally, and to propose its own solutions. Only if the Islamic religious community refused to engage in such a debate, or if the result of the debate were a defiant affirmation of the face veil, would the state invite representatives to a round table to try to resolve the problem. This approach would, of course, be more cumbersome than simply writing a law into the constitution; on the other hand, such an approach would be sustainable, as it recognises the Islamic religious community as a civil society actor. Additionally, it would be in line with the secular self-image as, firstly, the conflict is defined as not being between state and religion, but rather between society and religion; and secondly, the state would thus actually take the role of a mediator.

The vote on the veiling ban is therefore tantamount to a criticism of the secular order. The secular order is distrusted because it has failed to integrate the Islamic communities in a way that is compatible with the ideas of either the laïcists or the value conservatives. However, this attitude is not post-secular in the sense of Jürgen Habermas, since it does not show itself as a self-reflective distancing, but rather apologetic, since it understands the state as the opposite of religion. It is therefore not surprising that a "political Islam" or "Islamism" is juxtaposed with the state, being an ideology that strives for domination, i.e. ultimately wants to usurp the state.

The value-conservative attitude was accepted uncritically. The editor-in-chief of the NZZ, Eric Gujer, argued (NZZ 19.2.2021): "Islamism is not an abstract, but a real danger. In its name, people are murdered and harassed. Its symbol is the full-face veil, which therefore has no place in a free society." The burqa and niqab are "the emblems of a totalitarian ideology." At no point does Gujer explain what Islamism means, who represents it, and what policies are intended or supported under it. “Islamism” functions as a self-explanatory generic term, similarly to the word "Semitism" in the nineteenth century.

Islamism as a common enemy

Differentiation was rejected here. Any attempts to point out that such a generic term was nonsensical were bound to fail, since danger could only be invoked if such a generic term meaningfully existed. Thus, it was still possible for some to assume that behind the face veil was a terror that could affect everyone in the country. 

The advocates of a laïcist order were less concerned with a hidden danger than with an apology for freedom, the Enlightenment, and the universality of values. They interpreted the ban on veiling as a symbolic defeat of patriarchal structures, a victory over religious radicalism, and a prevention of religious violence. Crucial for them was the argument that the veil degraded the dignity of women, that women who claimed to wear the veil voluntarily had to be resented, that the sexualisation of women through the veil had to be stopped, and that the physical exclusion of women from the public sphere, which the face veil represented, had to be fought.

The laïcists had a moral argument on their side: symbolically, it was almost exactly 50 years ago that women's right to vote had been introduced at the federal level in Switzerland, and the vote on the veil ban took place just one day before International Women's Day. This time, it was said, Switzerland should show that it was a pioneer of women's liberation.


Those who demanded equality, freedom and solidary justice from a post-secular perspective remained in the minority. This group insisted that there must be "a level of understanding that is ideologically neutralised, and in this sense secular",1 in which the importance of religions as counterparts to society is recognised, they are valued as interpretive communities, and there is appropriate recognition of the fact that many people who have immigrated to Western societies cultivate religions as a positive frame of reference. They argued within the framework of a different style of thinking that liberalises "translating realities into possibilities, limits of action into options for action, substances and entities into functions, absolute values into preferences."2

The Muslim communities were also to participate in this understanding; they were to be invited to distance themselves from the fundamentalisation of their order, and likewise to undertake a post-secular distancing. Hardly anyone regarded the no vote as tolerating or even affirming the covering of faces. The no vote was a secularist one. It remained true to the basic tenet of secularism that the state must refrain from any intervention in religious policy, unless religious institutions or communities violate the commandment of peace within society or act against the state. Issues such as the wearing of a face veil by Islamic orthodox puritans should therefore be defined as a particular problem of an Islamic religious community. Society, the majority of which does not agree with this face veiling, may rightly expect the religious community to deal with the problem of face veiling and to offer compatible solutions for society. Similarly, the Catholic Church should be expected to debate the problem of celibacy, and the exclusion of women from teaching and the priesthood, and then to offer solutions. In return, society guarantees religious communities their internal autonomy, their participation in civic affairs, and their protection from possible arbitrary state action.

Identity politics

However, the arguments of those opposed to the bill were also mixed with the claims of an identity-based attitude. The latter was less concerned with ensuring a secular balance between society and religion, but with criticising the power imbalance inherent in the prohibition order, that prevents the possibility of an identity-political self-positioning of women who wear a face veil. The campaign for a veil ban was evaluated as an expression of a power-political curtailment of a particular identity. The face veil was likewise evaluated as a symbolic expression of a new identity-based consciousness. Since identity politics allows self-determination according to a particular identity, based equally on religious, social, ethnic, generational as well as gender markers, it erases the boundary between society and religion.

Representatives of an identity-political negation of the veiling ban were not particularly present. Much more frequently, those opposed to the ban were accused, by those in favour, of representing an identity-political stance. Moreover, it was claimed they were in denial over the extent of their being used by the agencies of Islamism as "purveyors of Islamism".

Unlike in France or Great Britain, the accusation of Islamophobia was rather rare in the Swiss debate. This is probably related to the fact that, in contrast to the controversy over the ban on the construction of minarets, Islam as a religious community was more clearly dissociated from the construct of ‘Islamism’. Although this distinction was hardly respected in the content of the debate, and though the Koran, prophetic tradition and Islamic history were referenced in arguments against the full-face veil, the proponents of the ban succeeded in creating the impression that they were not anti-Islamic. In addition, some prominent proponents bore Islamic-sounding names, so that the public was allowed to assume that the rejection of Islamism and its symbols was borne primarily by Muslims. The public thus saw itself as the defender of a genuinely Islamic interest. Under these circumstances, the accusation of Islamophobia could not score points.

The ongoing conflict between Laïcists and Secularists

The vote on the veiling ban was subject to a still unresolved conflict between secularism and laïcism. Similarly to what has been observed in France, a temporary strategic alliance between laïcists and value-conservative advocates of a Helvetic populism emerged in Switzerland. The latter framed the dispute as a battle between the state and Islamism, which they judged to be an inhuman, even fascist ideology. Both were united in this assessment of Islamism. At the same time, there was an opposing, issue-related alliance between secularists and supporters of a new, identity-political culturalism. It can be expected that religion will play an increasingly important role in the dispute between these sides, and since Islam is currently considered the most obvious manifestation of the religious, it can be expected that the vote on the veiling ban will not be the last word on the subject of Islam.

This article has also been published in German as FINO Memo 28 on the website of the Forum Islam and Middle East (FINO).


1 Jürgen Habermas, "Die Revitalisierung der Weltreligionen – Herausforderung für ein säkulares Selbstverständnis der Moderne?" In: Jürgen Habermas: Philosophische Texte Bd. 5: Kritik der Vernunft. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2009, p. 387–407, p. 398.

2 Wolfgang van den Daele, «Risiko-Kommunikation: Gentechnologie», in: Jungermann H., Rohrmann B., Wiedemann P.M. (eds.): Risikokontroversen. Berlin: Springer, 1991, p. 11–61, p. 14.