Retailer sells message of religious tolerance

The headscarf is used as a political as well as a religious symbol Keystone

A Swiss expert on Islam has welcomed a decision by the country’s leading retailer, Migros, not to ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves.

This content was published on November 18, 2004 - 19:00

But in an interview with swissinfo, Stéphane Lathion, president of the Group of Research on Islam in Switzerland, said the move was unlikely to lead to changes elsewhere.

On Thursday Migros said there would be no outright ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves, following a request by a Muslim female employee in Zurich. But the retailer said it retained the right to decide on a case-by-case basis.

Lathion, a senior lecturer in sociology of religions at Fribourg University, published a book, “Muslims in Europe”, in 2003.

swissinfo: What kind of message does the decision taken by Migros send out to Switzerland as a whole?

Stéphane Lathion: First of all, this is a positive step. It is recognition of the Muslim presence in Switzerland, seen here in an agreement between employees and their employer.

swissinfo: But is this decision likely to resonate in schools and public life?

S.L.: I don’t think so; firstly, because in Switzerland the cantons don’t have the same legislation covering religion. In Geneva or Neuchâtel, for example, secularism is understood as being an absence of all religious symbols. Migros’ decision will not change this.

It won’t have any impact on schools either, where there are good arguments for limiting the influence of religion.

swissinfo: In your opinion, how is the headscarf issue viewed by the Swiss population?

S.L.: The situation in France has a major impact on people’s thinking, especially in French-speaking Switzerland.

When a row about the headscarf erupts in France, its effects are felt in French-speaking Switzerland. And supporters of a strong secular society take advantage of the situation to relaunch the debate here in Switzerland.

Saying that, Switzerland is not France. I don’t think you will find in Geneva or anywhere else in western Switzerland the kind of scenes witnessed in certain French districts where girls go to school wearing a burka.

I think it’s a shame that the headscarf issue is always surrounded by polemic. Here in Switzerland, the situation is such that we can examine the validity of the various arguments and then impose restrictions.

I see in this approach a form of respect. And that’s why the stance taken by Migros is a good one.

In adopting a more inclusive and longer-term approach, we would avoid situations where Muslims feel they are discriminated against, which is sometimes the case.

swissinfo: How do France and Germany deal with the headscarf issue?

S.L.: In Germany they tend to work on a case-by-case basis, which is due to the country’s federal system. As for France, there’s an unbelievable amount of tension over Islam.

Provocation by certain Muslim groups is a fact. This fuels the fears of non-Muslims and leads some moderate Muslims to demand safeguards.

swissinfo: And what is the significance of the headscarf?

S.L.: There are many reasons why women wear the headscarf. For certain women, the headscarf is a political statement. But these women remain very much in the minority.

For most Muslims who wear it, the headscarf is a sign of identity, mainly religious, but also cultural.

There is a danger of pigeonholing the majority because of the actions of an active, spiteful and provocative minority, who wear the headscarf as a political symbol. To put them in the same basket is intellectually dishonest, and it poisons the debate.

swissinfo-interview: Pierre-François Besson

Key facts

Religious freedom is enshrined in the Swiss constitution.
Each person has the right to choose his or her religion.
But under the federal system, it is up to the cantons to rule on the relationship between State and Church.

End of insertion

Articles in this story

In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here. Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

Sort by

Change your password

Do you really want to delete your profile?

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Almost finished... We need to confirm your email address. To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

Discover our weekly must-reads for free!

Sign up to get our top stories straight into your mailbox.

The SBC Privacy Policy provides additional information on how your data is processed.