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  • November 2014 : ban on the full veil in Ticino canton

On 22 September 2013, the initiative seeking to ban concealment of the face in public and to incorporate this in the Constitution of Ticino was accepted by 65.4% of voters in the Italian-speaking canton. As such, Ticino has become the first canton to prohibit wearing of the full veil in public, which has ignited debate : some regard this vote as a violation of the fundamental rights of Muslim women and discrimination against the Muslim minority when combined with the ban on building minarets in Switzerland (which was voted on and passed in June 2010).

This initiative - led by former journalist Giorgio Ghiringhelli, and with a text very close to the French law approved by the European Court of Human Rights in July 2014 - is seen by some as nonsense. Indeed, the number of residents who conceal their face is extremely low, whether in Ticino in particular or in Switzerland in general : there are only around ten people who do so in the whole country, according to Nadia Karmous, President of the Cultural Organisation for Muslim Women in Switzerland.

The human rights NGO Amnesty International has declared that a “general ban on wearing the full veil violates the right to freedom of expression and religion of the women who choose to express their identity or convictions in such a manner”. On the other hand, Amnesty International recalls that it is up to the State to make sure that no woman is forced to veil herself. Another danger of this emergency law is that it is likely to marginalise women wearing such clothing. The initiative has also been condemned by Human Rights Watch, the European Muslim League and the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (ICCS).

The issue of the full veil in Switzerland, although it relates to only a small minority of Muslim women, has been a regular subject of discussion since 2006. The Federal Council had clearly opposed the ban, but the wind turned : in November 2014, the Federal Council (executive power) gave its assent for the modification of the Constitution of Ticino put forward by the initiative. It only remains to await the decision of the parliament so that the initiative can indeed come into effect. It is very likely that the debate will go beyond the cantonal level and lead to a popular vote at national level.

  • January 2015 : recognition of Islam

In Switzerland, religious communities can be recognised officially, implying certain specific rights and obligations (see section on the legal status of religions). However, this recognition is, for the moment, far from being granted to all religious communities established in Switzerland.

Two paths to recognition

The national churches - Roman Catholic and Reformed - benefit from a public law status, just as the Jewish community does in certain cantons (religious issues are dealt with at cantonal, not federal, level). This form of recognition is also called “grande reconnaissance” [lit. major recognition]. This means that the Swiss State ensures, in line with the Constitution, material resources for the functioning of the religious institutions in question, in particular in the form of subsidies and payment of salaries to their representatives.

The “petite reconnaissance” [lit. minor recognition] itself ensures a recognition of public interest for religious communities which then benefit from certain rights that are more restricted than in the first form of recognition : the possibility of providing religious education in schools, for example. Such is the case of the Alevi in the canton of Basel City, a community derived from Islam (for more information, see procedures for recognition).

Timid advances in the recognition of Muslims

Since late 2012, the Alevi community has been the one and only Muslim community to benefit from official, albeit limited, recognition. This lack of recognition can come as a surprise, knowing that Islam is, numerically speaking, the second-largest religion in Switzerland, after the two majority Christian confessions (Reformed and Catholic). In January 2015, two Muslim organisations announced that they wished to prepare their application for recognition as being of public interest : the UVAM (Union vaudoise des associations musulmanes), an umbrella body for 15 organisations, and the CIL (Centre islamique de Lausanne). But the climate unfavourable to Islam and Muslims due to the international context is of concern to UVAM President Pascal Gemperli, a convert to Islam from Schaffhausen.

With the issue being treated at cantonal level, Basel City and Vaud are the cantons concerned with these future requests and should consequently serve as a “laboratory for Muslims in search of a status”. The Canton of Vaud, for its part, has published a document listing many precise conditions to attain a recognition of public interest, recalling that this does not open up a right to subsidies, unlike public law recognition.

The challenges of recognition

According to Jurist Philippe Gardaz of the Institute of Law and Religion at the University of Fribourg, the organisations which commit to an application procedure for recognition can be “bridges of integration”. Indeed, candidate organisations for petite reconnaissance are subject to checks by cantonal authorities over a five-year period and must prove their respect for many principles, such as democracy, human rights, fundamental freedoms etc. This without taking into account the process which precedes the canton’s decision, which will have already lasted two years in the Alevis’ case.

Even if the step towards public law recognition (“grande reconnaissance”) is still far off, this debate reignites issues related to the various advantages that such recognition represents : training for imams (when not recruiting imams from abroad who are not always up to date with islams in the Swiss context), the remuneration of Muslim chaplains in prisons and hospitals (today mainly volunteers, unlike Christian chaplains who are remunerated by the Swiss State) and access to the register of residents (which would allow quick contact with Muslim newcomers).

D 16 janvier 2017    AAnaïd Lindemann

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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