18th Apr 2021


Swiss vote to ban burqas increases risk of extremism

  • The Swiss ban follows similar restrictions on public veiling in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands, all of which have in place full or partial restrictions on the veil (Photo: miss_ohara)

By a slim margin, citizens of Switzerland voted earlier this month (7 March) to prohibit Muslim women from wearing Islamic face coverings such as the niqab and burqa in public.

The Swiss ban follows similar restrictions on public veiling in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands, all of which have in place full or partial restrictions on the veil.

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While laws against face coverings in these countries do not mention Islam or Islamic headgear by name in order to avoid violating anti-discrimination provisions, they are widely believed to be targeted at Muslims and, accordingly, are often referred to by their supporters as "burqa bans."

Proponents of banning or restricting the wearing of Islamic face coverings believe that the veil represents a lack of proper Muslim assimilation into mainstream European society and dehumanises women, which, in turn, creates populations vulnerable to radicalisation.

The veil is also seen a powerful symbolic threat associated with terrorism.

Those who wear it are perceived as siding with extremist Islam instead of the secular West and seek to promote a radical political ideology of Islamism throughout the continent.

Indeed, this was the underlying logic of the Swiss ban.

As stated by Walter Wobmann, chairman of the referendum committee, the Islamic face covering represents a "symbol for this extreme, political Islam which has become increasingly prominent in Europe and which has no place in Switzerland."

The proposal to ban the veil in public was initiated by the rightwing Swiss People's Party, which had campaigned with slogans such as "Stop Radical Islam!" and "Stop Extremism!"

Will the Swiss burqa ban achieve its intended goal of combatting extremism?

Law of unintended consequences

My research suggests that such a ban will have the opposite effect of increasing the risk of extremism and terrorism, as it has in other countries where Islamic face coverings have been banned.

In a study on the relationship between burqa bans and terrorism in Europe, my co-author and I find that such restrictions on the wearing of the veil is strongly and positively correlated with Islamist terrorism, even when controlling for a number of other political, demographic, and economic factors that might be related to terrorism.

Jarringly, we find that countries with veil restrictions experience almost 15 times more cases of Islamist terrorist attacks and 17 times more terrorism-related fatalities than countries not having these bans.

Our numerous statistical tests also find that these attacks follow rather than precede restrictions on the veil.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, veil restrictions encourage terrorism.

Why would this be the case? One explanation is that restrictions on the veil represent an important violation of religious freedom. These restrictions naturally breed resentment among stigmatised and marginalised groups.

Numerous studies over the past decade document a powerful symbiotic relationship between religious repression from above and religious extremism from below.

A number of terrorists have claimed restrictions on Islamic dress to be one of the key factors leading them down the path of violent extremism.

Prohibitions of religious practice, such as veil bans, are interpreted as an attack on their culture and values, breeding resentment and in some cases leading to violence.

Another explanation is that veil restrictions undercut women's rights. Restrictions on female religious garb inevitably result in the seclusion and isolation of Muslim women from the rest of society - the very thing that burqa bans are supposed to ameliorate.

Such a reality may also result in Muslim women, who are normally barriers to the radicalisation process, becoming more accepting of the idea that violence is an appropriate means to change the status quo.

Indeed, research also reveals an important causal relationship between the restriction of women's rights and violent conflict.

All this suggests that the Swiss vote will likely lead to unintended consequences and set into motion a spiral of repression and resistance, as it has in other countries.

The security implications of burqa bans - to say nothing of the human rights consequences - urgently call on Switzerland along with minded countries to rethink their policies of exclusion and to recognise the necessity of cultural sensitivity towards religious minorities as the bedrock of national security.

The good news is that the nature of direct democracy in Switzerland allows for the citizens of the country to reverse course on this issue, especially given the close vote on the proposal.

Author bio

Nilay Saiya is assistant professor of public policy and global affairs at Nanyang Technological University and a senior fellow with the Religious Freedom Institute. He is author of the book Weapon of Peace: How Religious Liberty Combats Terrorism (Cambridge University Press, 2018).


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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