Sunday, September 29, 2013

Burka ban in Ticino could help curb Islamic extremism before it takes root, and would be "a strong signal for Switzerland and maybe for other countries" to follow suit

Giorgio Ghiringhelli
Said  Giorgio Ghiringhelli, a 61-year-old political activist and former journalist, whose proposal to ban burka in Ticino was approved on September 22, 2013, in a public refrendum with 65.4% people of the state voting in favour of the constitutional ban as reported in the International Service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. Ticino has become the first Swiss canton to approve a ban on face-covering headgear in public places. There are 26 cantons in Switzerland and Ticino is home to two of the UNESCO World Heritage sites : Castles of Bellinzona and Monte San Giorgio. The vote of approval to the "anti-burqa" campaign, launched by Giorgio Ghiringhelli, forbids the use of burka and disguise the face. This result has boosted the hopes of those backing a future nationwide initiative. It will now be up to the federal parliament to accept the change to Ticino's constitution. Giorgio Ghiringhelli said the result would send a message to "Islamist fundamentalists" across Switzerland. "Those who want to integrate are welcome irrespective of their religion," he said in a statement


A similar proposal for a nation-wide ban put forward by canton Aargau was rejected by the federal parliament in 2012. The proposal had the support of leaders of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party. Ulrich Schl├╝er, a former member of the House of Representatives, is best known as the driving force behind the anti-minaret initiative accepted by Swiss voters in 2009. One of his party colleagues, Walter Wobmann, told Swiss television that the effort to collect the 100,000 signatures needed to force a vote on a burka ban would likely begin in spring 2014.

There are roughly 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland, about five percent of the population. It is believed that the massive turnout in favour of banning burkas from public spaces in Ticino could lead to a nationwide vote on the same issue, a possibility of real concern to human rights organisations and Switzerland’s Muslim community. A prominent local lawyer, Paolo Bernasconi, said a ban was not compatible with European human rights, and it would sully the image of the canton. He was supported in his views by NGOs including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch which put adverts in local newspapers, declaring that the wearing of burkas posed no risk to public order or safety. The European Muslims League and Islamic Central Council Switzerland held a joint news conference in Ticino's largest city, Lugano, to express their opposition. They called the ban "discriminatory". 

The burka ban could fail to pass muster in the court, however. It could be deemed disproportionate, counter to freedom of religion and not sufficiently justified to be in the public interest. The Federal Court has never had to rule on this kind of legislation. The European Court of Human Rights will reach a verdict by the end of the year on a number of complaints filed after France introduced legislation making it illegal to conceal one’s face. France was the first country in Europe to pass a law banning full-face veils in public, in 2010, and Belgium later followed suit. 

The anti-burka proposal has some support on the centre-right as well. “Burkas are not compatible with our values or integration goals,” Christophe Darbellay, president of the Christian Democrats, told the Nouvelliste newspaper. “I know the difference between a tourist and a person coming to live in Switzerland, who is expected to integrate.” “It’s a matter of security,” added his party colleague Urs Schwaller. “The police have to be able to identify people, and to do that you have to see their face.”

It is interesting to note that a French businessman Rachid Nekkaz has announced that he will pay all the fines levied against women for wearing burkas and niqabs in Switzerland. Already active in France and Belgium, he says he wants to extend his fight against “runaway Islamophobia” after the vote in Ticino. In July 2010, he set up a fund with €1 million (CHF1.23 million) to pay fines in France and Belgium. So far, he has paid 682 fines worth a total of €123,000, according to his own figures. Nekkaz says he is a human rights activist, ready to show how ridiculous any government or parliament is if it refuses to respect the fundamental rights set out by the European Human Rights Convention.

Oskar Freysinger, one of the leaders of the Swiss People’s Party and a vociferous supporter of the burka ban, says there is no desire to discriminate against the Arab world or any kind of racism behind a ban. Quite the opposite, he believes. “We want these women to become European citizens, like our women. We are attacking a ferociously patriarchal society that applies a brutal form of segregation. I am surprised that people on the Left would defend that,” he added.

Ticino  - home to two of the UNESCO World Heritage sites : Castles of Bellinzona and Monte San Giorgio - is situated on the main St. Gotthard road and railway link, connecting the north and south of Europe, Ticino can easily be reached by train, car or plane with fast and frequent connections. The international airport of Milano Malpensa (Italy) is only one hour away by car and there is also a regional airport in Lugano.

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