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Swiss voters decide ban on facial coverings

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Swiss voters have accepted a far-right proposal to ban facial coverings as they took to the polls on Sunday (7 March) in a binding referendum viewed as a test of attitudes toward Muslims, writes Michael Shields.

The proposal under the Swiss system of direct democracy does not mention Islam directly and also aims to stop violent street protesters from wearing masks, yet local politicians, media and campaigners have dubbed it the burqa ban.

“In Switzerland, our tradition is that you show your face. That is a sign of our basic freedoms,” Walter Wobmann, chairman of the referendum committee and a member of parliament for the Swiss People’s Party, had said before the vote.

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He called facial covering “a symbol for this extreme, political Islam which has become increasingly prominent in Europe and which has no place in Switzerland”.

The proposal predates the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen all adults forced to wear masks in many settings to prevent the spread of infection. It gathered the necessary support to trigger a referendum in 2017.

The proposal compounded Switzerland’s tense relationship with Islam after citizens voted in 2009 to ban building any new minarets. Two cantons already have local bans on face coverings.

coronavirus

French Muslims pay heavy price in COVID pandemic

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Volunteers of the Tahara association pray for 38-year-old Abukar Abdulahi Cabi, a Muslim refugee who died of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during a burial ceremony in a cemetery in La Courneuve, near Paris, France, May 17, 2021. Picture taken May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Volunteers of the Tahara association bury the casket of 38-year-old Abukar Abdulahi Cabi, a Muslim refugee who died of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during a burial ceremony in a cemetery in La Courneuve, near Paris, France, May 17, 2021. Picture taken May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Every week, Mamadou Diagouraga comes to the Muslim section of a cemetery near Paris to stand vigil at the grave of his father, one of the many French Muslims to have died from COVID-19, writes Caroline Pailliez.

Diagouraga looks up from his father's plot at the freshly-dug graves alongside. "My father was the first one in this row, and in a year, it's filled up," he said. "It's unbelievable."

While France is estimated to have the European Union's largest Muslim population, it does not know how hard that group has been hit: French law forbids the gathering of data based on ethnic or religious affiliations.

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But evidence collated by Reuters - including statistical data that indirectly captures the impact and testimony from community leaders - indicates the COVID death rate among French Muslims is much higher than in the overall population.

According to one study based on official data, excess deaths in 2020 among French residents born in mainly Muslim North Africa were twice as high as among people born in France.

The reason, community leaders and researchers say, is that Muslims tend to have a lower-than-average socio-economic status.

They are more likely to do jobs such as bus drivers or cashiers that bring them into closer contact with the public and to live in cramped multi-generational households.

"They were ... the first to pay a heavy price," said M'Hammed Henniche, head of the union of Muslim associations in Seine-Saint-Denis, a region near Paris with a large immigrant population.

The unequal impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities, often for similar reasons, has been documented in other countries, including the United States.

But in France, the pandemic throws into sharp relief the inequalities that help fuel tensions between French Muslims and their neighbours - and which look set to become a battleground in next year's presidential election.

President Emmanuel Macron's main opponent, polls indicate, will be far-right politician Marine Le Pen, who is campaigning on issues of Islam, terrorism, immigration, and crime.

Asked to comment on the impact of COVID-19 on France's Muslims, a government representative said: "We don't have data that is tied to people's religion."

While official data is silent on the impact of COVID-19 on Muslims, one place it becomes apparent is in France's cemeteries.

People buried according to Muslim religious rites are typically placed in specially-designated sections of the cemetery, where graves are aligned so the dead person faces Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.

The cemetery at Valenton where Diagouraga's father, Boubou, was buried, is in the Val-de-Marne region, outside Paris.

According to figures Reuters compiled from all 14 cemeteries in Val-de-Marne, in 2020 there were 1,411 Muslim burials, up from 626 the previous year, before the pandemic. That represents a 125% increase, compared to a 34% increase for burials of all confessions in that region.

Increased mortality from COVID only partially explains the rise in Muslim burials.

Pandemic border restrictions prevented many families from sending deceased relatives back to their country of origin for burial. There is no official data, but undertakers said around three quarters of French Muslims were buried abroad pre-COVID.

Undertakers, imams and non-government groups involved in burying Muslims said there were not enough plots to meet demand at the start of the pandemic, forcing many families to call around desperately to find somewhere to bury their relatives.

On the morning of May 17 this year, Samad Akrach arrived at a mortuary in Paris to collect the body of Abdulahi Cabi Abukar, a Somali who died in March 2020 from COVID-19, with no family who could be traced.

Akrach, president of the Tahara charity that gives Muslim burials to the destitute, performed the ritual of washing the body and applying musk, lavender, rose petals and henna. Then, in the presence of 38 volunteers invited by Akrach's group, the Somali was buried according to Muslim ritual at Courneuve cemetery on the outskirts of Paris.

Akrach's group conducted 764 burials in 2020, up from 382 in 2019, he said. Around half had died from COVID-19. "The Muslim community has been affected enormously in this period," he said.

Statisticians also use data on foreign-born residents to build a picture of the impact of COVID on ethnic minorities. This shows excess deaths among French residents born outside France were up 17% in 2020, versus 8% for French-born residents.

Seine-Saint-Denis, the region of mainland France with the highest number of residents not born in France, had a 21.8% rise in excess mortality from 2019 to 2020, official statistics show, more than twice the increase for France as a whole.

Excess deaths among French residents born in majority Muslim North Africa were 2.6 times higher, and among those from sub-Saharan Africa 4.5 times higher, than among French-born people.

"We can deduce that... immigrants of the Muslim faith have been much harder hit by the COVID epidemic," said Michel Guillot, research director at the state-funded French Institute for Demographic Studies.

In Seine-Saint-Denis, the high mortality is especially striking because in normal times, with its younger than average population, it has a lower death rate than France overall.

But the region performs worse than average on socio-economic indicators. Twenty percent of homes are over-crowded, versus 4.9% nationally. The average hourly wage is 13.93 euros, nearly 1.5 euros less than the national figure.

Henniche, head of the region's union of Muslim associations, said he first felt the impact of COVID-19 on his community when he began receiving multiple phone calls from families seeking help burying their dead.

"It's not because they're Muslims," he said of the COVID death rate. "It's because they belong to the least privileged social classes."

White collar professionals could protect themselves by working from home. "But if someone is a refuse collector, or a cleaning lady, or a cashier, they cannot work from home. These people have to go out, use public transport," he said.

"There is a kind of bitter taste, of injustice. There is this feeling: 'Why me?' and 'Why always us?'"

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EU

Le Pen 'is a disturbance to public order' - Goldschmidt

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Commenting on the interview with the party leader of the French right-wing populist Rassemblement National (RN) Marine Le Pen (pictured) published in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), has issued the following statement: “It is not the headscarf that is a disturbance to public order, but Ms Le Pen. This is clearly the wrong signal to the Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities living in France. It expresses Ms Le Pen’s fear of foreigners. She is dividing society instead of uniting it, and in doing so, she is deliberately using the Jewish community, which according to her should refrain from wearing the kippah, as collateral damage in her fight against cultures.

“The supporters of the ban are convinced that they are fighting radical Islam. But how do they define radical Islam? I define radical Islam as Islamism that does not tolerate secular Muslims, Christians and Jews and the European society as a whole. This radical Islam can also walk around in jeans and with uncovered hair. It is this that is the real danger, as France has often so bitterly experienced. Instead of attacking political Islam and its supporters, a religious symbol is being attacked.

“Le Pen’s demand is nothing other than an attack on the fundamental and human right of religious freedom, which people in many places in Europe are now repeatedly trying to restrict. This is an alarming trend for all religious minorities.”

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Islam

Swiss agree to outlaw facial coverings in 'burqa ban' vote

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A far-right proposal to ban facial coverings in Switzerland won a narrow victory in a binding referendum on Sunday (7 March) instigated by the same group that organized a 2009 ban on new minarets, writes Michael Shields.

The measure to amend the Swiss constitution passed by a 51.2-48.8% margin, provisional official results showed.

The proposal under the Swiss system of direct democracy does not mention Islam directly and also aims to stop violent street protesters from wearing masks, yet local politicians, media and campaigners have dubbed it the burqa ban.

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“In Switzerland, our tradition is that you show your face. That is a sign of our basic freedoms,” Walter Wobmann, chairman of the referendum committee and a member of parliament for the Swiss People’s Party, had said before the vote.

Facial covering is “a symbol for this extreme, political Islam which has become increasingly prominent in Europe and which has no place in Switzerland,” he said.

Muslim groups condemned the vote and said they would challenge it.

“Today’s decision opens old wounds, further expands the principle of legal inequality, and sends a clear signal of exclusion to the Muslim minority,” the Central Council of Muslims in Switzerland said.

It promised legal challenges to laws implementing the ban and a fundraising drive to help women who are fined.

“Anchoring dress codes in the constitution is not a liberation struggle for women but a step back into the past,” the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland said, adding Swiss values of neutrality, tolerance and peacemaking had suffered in the debate.

France banned wearing a full face veil in public in 2011 and Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Bulgaria have full or partial bans on wearing face coverings in public.

Two Swiss cantons already have local bans on face coverings, although almost no one in Switzerland wears a burqa and only around 30 women wear the niqab, the University of Lucerne estimates. Muslims make up 5% of the Swiss population of 8.6 million people, most with roots in Turkey, Bosnia and Kosovo.

The government had urged people to vote against a ban.

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