Growing up as a Swiss Muslim in the shadow of 9/11

September 21, 2021
Young Swiss Muslims are no longer ready to accept increasing levels of anti-Islam sentiment.
Young Swiss Muslims are no longer ready to accept increasing levels of anti-Islam sentiment.

GENEVA -- Maymunah Ahmed stands out from the crowds as she navigates her way up the cobblestone pathway to the city of Bern's iconic Rose Garden viewpoint in her traditional Islamic attire. The abaya robe and dark green hijab she wears remain an uncommon sight in the Swiss capital.

“Go home, take your headscarf off. I've experienced it all” she recalls looking over the red tiled rooftops of the medieval old town during an interview with in Bern.“I can imagine that my outward appearance is problematic for some people, but that by no means warrants the everyday discrimination that I face”.

Twenty years on from 9/11, young Swiss Muslims are facing rising levels of anti-Islam sentiment, stirred up by political debates and media narratives that create divides between Switzerland's Muslims and the wider community.

Of Mauritanian and Somali descent, Maymunah arrived in the country at the age of two after her parents fled to Switzerland as refugees. She is now saving up for medical school in Bern and is one of the roughly 391,000 Muslims over the age of 15 that make up about 5.4% of Switzerland's population.

“I've been told I should go back to my homeland, that I should leave the country,” she says when asked about living in Switzerland.

“There are areas in which I definitely feel welcome... but there are undoubtably also moments where I have reservations and question whether I'm safe.”

While there have been Muslims living in Switzerland for hundreds of years, the majority of today's Swiss Muslim communities arrived as guest workers from Turkey, Bosnia, and Kosovo in the 1960s. The liberalization of immigration policies in 1991 allowed those workers to bring their families, many of which fled from conflicts in the Balkans.

Between 1960 and 2000, the number of Muslims in Switzerland increased from 2,703 to 310,807, making it the third largest religious community in the country.

Growing up in a rural town with only 10,000 pre-dominantly white inhabitants, it was initially Maymunah's skin colour that was the source of her discrimination, she says. However, in the last twenty years she perceived a shift in attitudes towards Muslims and now says she increasingly faces discrimination because of her belief in Islam.

The rise of violent Islamist groups targeting the West spurred a hardening of attitudes towards Switzerland's Muslim minority.

“Before 9/11 it was the nationality that people focused on, after it became religion,” says Önder Güneş, spokesperson of the Swiss Federation of Islamic Umbrella Organizations.

In the eyes of the wider Swiss population, the attacks turned migrants into Muslims, and Muslims into radicals, he explains.

The 9/11 attacks were followed by further attacks in Europe, including the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the 2005 London Underground bombings, which killed 191 and 56 people respectively.

These attacks heralded the arrival of terrorism in Europe and brought the threat to Switzerland's doorstep. They led to the construction of a media narrative in which Muslims were presented as the cause of societal problems.

A 2017 study by the Federal Commission Against Racism (EKR) demonstrated that Swiss print media disproportionately focused on themes that do not represent the everyday experiences of Muslims. Of newspaper articles that dealt with the topic of Islam, 54% focused on themes of “radicalisation” or “terrorism”. Narratives of “successful integration” and “everyday life”, were each mentioned in only 2% of articles.

The problematisation of Muslims also seeped onto the political stage. In 2009, Switzerland voted in a referendum to ban the building of minarets. This was followed by a vote to ban women from wearing both the burqa and niqab, two forms of Islamic dress that conceal a woman's face, in public.

Despite estimations that only a few dozen Muslim women in Switzerland wore such clothes, the ban was approved by a slim majority of 51.2% in March 2021. Both votes were triggered by members of the conservative, right-wing Swiss People's Party.

This follows a trend of other European countries that have similarly banned full face coverings. In 2011 France became the first country in the world to ban the wearing of face veils in public, with the Netherlands enacting similar legislation in 2012, and Austria following suit in 2017.

While these referendums have little direct impact on the lives of most Swiss Muslims, feelings of “suspicion and aggressiveness toward Muslims peak” when controversial referenda and political debates on Islam abound, says Dr Mallory Schneuwly Purdie, senior researcher at the Swiss Centre for Islam and SocietyExternal link . This ensures that since 9/11, Swiss Muslims have “perceived an increased feeling of discrimination and racism”, explains Dr Schneuwly Purdie.

A study published by the Swiss National Office of StatisticsExternal link in 2019 showed that Muslims experienced discrimination on the grounds of religion more than any other religious group in Switzerland. The Support Network for Victims of Racism, meanwhile, registered an increase from 23 reported cases of Islam related discrimination in 2010, to 55 in 2020, with unreported cases likely being much higher.

Political discourse painting Islam as a problem has pushed some Muslims to explore their faith more deeply. Since others saw and treated them as “just Muslims”, they decided to make Islam a stronger part of their identities, says Dr Schneuwly Purdie.

Albana Azemi and her mother, for example, only began wearing headscarves in 2009 when the referendum on the construction of mosque minarets pushed them to confront what it meant to be a Muslim.

“The minaret ban forced me to decide between my Islamic and Swiss identities, but I decided that I'm both”, explains Albana, sitting at the kitchen table in a grey hijab and black robe.

Like many Muslims with Balkan origins, Albana's father came to Switzerland as a guest worker in 1988. The rest of her family followed shortly after. With a re-invigorated connection to Islam, she and her family now pray regularly, using the prayer mats she has tucked away under the sofa in the living room.

She remembers watching the 9/11 attacks unfold on television when she was only 11 years old. Twenty years later, she recognises that the media discourse and referendums that followed have significantly shaped her experience growing up in Switzerland.

After the ban on full face coverings came into effect earlier this year, Albana says people on the street approached her to tell her that she was no longer allowed to wear the hijab, or Muslim headscarf, which unlike the burqa and niqab does not conceal a woman's face.

“Many didn't even know what they voted for”, she says in disbelief, blaming political and media discourse for legitimising discrimination against Muslims.

Experiencing discrimination can make integration into Swiss society all the more difficult, especially in the workplace.

“When I decided to wear the headscarf, I was fired from my job straight away. If you work in a client facing role and want to wear a hijab, you can forget it,” Albana, who currently works from home as a customer support representative, says with a wry laugh.

Hers is not a unique experience. While both male and female Muslims can experience difficulties looking for jobs, it is especially difficult for veiled Muslim women, according to spokesman Güneş.

A report by Anaïd Lindemann of the University of Lausanne lays out the interconnected reasons for this. A hijab is seen as a clear marker of the religion and makes the woman's connection to Islam explicit. This intersects with the discrimination that a woman would already face on account of her gender, as well as the (incorrect) perception that hijab wearing women must be foreigners.

Therefore, while visibly Muslim women are often criticised for failing to integrate properly, they are simultaneously barred from doing so by discriminatory workplace practices.

“Where should these women integrate, how should these be a part of the society, part of the workforce, if they aren't allowed to practice their religion how they see fit?” asks Güneş.

Although these challenges are not new or unique to Switzerland, a young generation of Swiss Muslims is pushing back. While the first generation of Muslim immigrants that arrived in Switzerland saw this discrimination as being part and parcel of living in a foreign land, their children who identify as Swiss are far less accepting.

“My parents were just focused on surviving.” says Maymunah, who uses social media such as TikTok to make videos promoting and defending the rights of Swiss Muslims. “They had a guest mentality, and were grateful for just being here, but I grew up here and I expect the same rights as every other person... I'm a Swiss citizen, and I'm a Swiss Muslim, even if society doesn't want to accept that.”

“This is our home. I have my roots here. I went to school here, studied here, and I'm not planning on leaving,” says Albana, who is now raising her children in the Swiss city of Lucerne that she has lived in all her life. “We are here and we're a part of society, and people have to accept that.” -- MENAFN

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