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Swiss voters are poised to approve 'burqa ban'

Swiss voters will deliver their verdict on a proposed 'burqa ban' this weekend with polls suggesting they are likely to approve the measure in Sunday's referendum. 

The far-right Swiss People's Party is spearheading the campaign to ban face coverings in public, arguing that 'our tradition is that you show your face' and describing the veils as a 'symbol of extreme political Islam'.  

But the Swiss government has called for voters to reject the plan, saying it would be pointless because so few people wear the veils and warning that it would damage tourism in the Alpine country. 

While the proposal does not mention Islam directly and could also rein in violent street protesters and football hooligans, it has widely been described as a burqa ban by local politicians, media and campaigners.

A poster calling for a 'yes' vote in the referendum - with the slogan 'stop extremism!' in French - is displayed on a wall in Sion ahead of Sunday's vote 

One advert put up by the People's Party (SVP) has the slogan 'stop extremism!' above an image of someone wearing a headscarf and face veil. 

The SVP-backed proposal already had enough support to trigger a referendum before face coverings became compulsory for many because of Covid-19.

But Covid-related mask-wearing would not be affected by the ban because there is an exception for people who need to cover their faces on health grounds.   

Two Swiss cantons, St Gallen and Ticino, have already banned full face coverings in regional votes - but the new measure would apply across all of Switzerland.  

'In Switzerland our tradition is that you show your face. That is a sign of our basic freedoms,' said Walter Wobmann, an SVP member of parliament.  

Wobmann claimed the vote was not against Islam itself, but added that 'the facial covering is a symbol for this extreme, political Islam which has become increasingly prominent in Europe and which has no place in Switzerland.'

'Free people show their faces,' says a campaign website. 

Muslims make up 5.2 per cent of the Swiss population of 8.6million people, with most having their roots in Turkey, Bosnia and Kosovo. 

But the government says very few people in Switzerland wear full-face coverings and they are mostly seen on female visitors who only spend a brief time in the country. 

Montreux and other destinations around Lake Geneva as well as Interlaken in central Switzerland typically attract Muslim tourists from the wealthy Gulf Arab states. 

The University of Lucerne estimates that as few as 30 women in Switzerland regularly wear the niqab while none wear the burqa.   

Swiss Muslims have said right-wing parties were using the vote to rally their supporters and demonise them, and have warned a ban could stoke wider divisions.

'The niqab is a blank sheet which allows people to project their fears onto it,' said Andreas Tunger-Zanetti, manager of Lucerne's Centre for Research on Religion.

'But... you are very unlikely to meet someone on a Swiss street wearing one.'

He said a ban risked cementing Switzerland's image as anti-Islamic and could create resentment amongst some Muslims.

The Swiss government has urged voters to reject a nationwide burqa ban when the issue is put to a referendum on Sunday, saying it would damage tourism (file photo) 

Rifa'at Lenzin, 67, a Swiss Muslim woman, said she was totally against the ban, which she said was tackling a problem which doesn't exist in a country where Muslims were well integrated.

'Changing the constitution to tell people what they can and cannot wear is a very bad idea.. This is Switzerland, not Saudi Arabia.'

'We are Muslims but we are Swiss citizens who have grown up here too,' Lenzin said. 'This vote is simply racist and Islamophobic.'

The Swiss government has made a counter-proposal requiring people to show their faces if required by authorities, which would take effect in the event of a 'no' vote.  

Switzerland previously voted to ban the building of new minarets in 2009, while France, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands all have full or partial burqa bans.      

Swiss justice minister Karin Keller-Sutter has called the proposal 'useless and contrary to our federal order that is working very well'.   

'Some cantons welcome many wealthy tourists from Arab countries,' she said. 'With a ban on covering the face in all of Switzerland, these tourists could decide not to spend their vacations in Switzerland.'

Under the Swiss system of direct democracy, any proposal to change the constitution goes to a vote if supporters raise more than 100,000 signatures. 

The group behind the burqa ban - the 'Egerkinger Komitee' that includes SVP members - was also behind the 2009 minaret ban backed by nearly 60 per cent of voters.  

Supporters of the proposal saw the minarets as alien to Swiss traditions and values at a time of growing unease over the activities of Islamist militants in Europe.  

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