Neo-Orientalism and the fear of ‘seeing’ the Other in contemporary Switzerland

Xenophobia as a product of Swiss exceptionalism it is one of the least explored and yet blatant forms of nationalism alive in contemporary Europe.

By Roberta Maggi
When we speak of nationalism, far-right ideology and neo-orientalism, Switzerland isn’t the first country that would come to mind. However, the rise of the ironically-named far-right party UDC (translated as “Democratic Union of the Centre”) since the 1990s seems to demonstrate otherwise. Xenophobia as a product of Swiss exceptionalism will be studied in this piece, for it is one of the least explored and yet blatant forms of nationalism alive in contemporary Europe.

Swiss nationalism, like most others, bears within itself blatant contradictions. The country was born as a confederation against the Germanic ‘other’ at the end of the 13th century and has not one but four national languages. The events of the 1st of August 1291 provide a general context for the creation of said confederation: on that day, in the aftermath of Emperor Rudolf I of Habsburg’s death, the cantons of Uri, Unterwalden and Schwyz formed an alliance that culminated in the Holy Roman Empire’s defeat at the battle of Sempach in 1386 (they would then be joined by the cantons of Glarus and Zug, and the city states of Lucerne, Bern and Zurich).

Figure 1: Swiss advertising campaign of the political party Union Démocratique du Centre (UDC), launched in 2007 and used again for the October 2011 National Council elections.

While it seems ironic that a country with such immanent cultural differences would buy into the eurosceptic and islamophobic discourses with such ease, there is another contradiction in the discourse on immigration that catches our attention: “the perceived need for immigrant labour on the one hand, and the schizophrenic desire not to see and have to deal with foreigners on the other” (in synch with the party’s own slogan, “Rester Libre”, Remain Free), which is particularly telling of the Swiss nationalist rationale. This particular aspect is key and will be at the heart of this article’s analysis of modern day UDC political campaigning.


What makes UDC so successful, similarly to other far right parties across Europe, is the nationalist sine qua non rhetorical claim that it will defend the rights of the people against a political system that, particularly in terms of immigration, they feel has let them down. In the recent years, UDC seems to have implemented the populist ‘winning formula’ in its advertisement campaign.

This winning campaign formula is made of conservatism in terms of cultural values coupled with claims of economic protectionism, thus constituting a form of economic nationalism that encompasses the grievances and insecurities caused by increasing globalisation.

Figure 1 is a particularly telling example of the place Swiss exceptionalism holds in UDC’s conceptualisation of politics. The ‘black sheep’ (which can be interpreted as either the foreigner who doesn’t fit in, or in a more racial lens, the person of colour) being kicked out of Switzerland ‘for more security’ (“Pour plus de sécurité”) by the (white) Swiss  herd speaks for the perceived exceptionalism that is here being claimed by a fraction of Switzerland who believes racial features are the key to identity. Moreover, it is important to notice UDC’s claim of uniformity within the herd, which is nothing short of antithetical to the very essence of Switzerland. Of course one could argue that Swiss exceptionalism should be based upon multiculturalism and accepting differences, but that wouldn’t be as appealing as the nationalist rhetoric.

This political campaign wishes to show that Swiss people are homogeneous and united against the foreign and different ‘other’, and evidently succeeded in doing so, due to the party’s electoral victory in 2011.

However, as identity hunters, we notice that by joining the xenophobic discourse this poster inherently portrays, UDC is threatening the origins of the very own exceptionalism that it claims.

Figure 2: Swiss advertising campaign of the political party Union Démocratique du Centre (UDC) for the referendum of the 12th of February 2017.

The political campaign this article is particularly concerned with is that of the 12th of February 2017 referendum concerning the easing of the naturalisation process for 3rd generation immigrants wishing to become Swiss citizens. The initiative affected about 0.3% of the Swiss population, without however making the obtention of the Swiss nationality automatic. However, UDC’s campaign was referred to as misleading and fraudulent by many voters in that it portrayed a woman in a burqa as the target population for this vote (Figure 2), as opposed to 3rd generation migrants born in Switzerland and fully integrated into Swiss culture and society. We here see a peculiar feature of Swiss nationalism re-emerge: the fear of seeing the foreign, as opposed to the fear of foreign presence. This is in synch with the theorisation that every instance of nationalism comprises both an ethnic and a civic component to it; it thus becomes a question of “how much ethnic straw is needed for the fabrication of political bricks”, not of whether it is in fact needed. We can equate this fear of seeing the ‘foreign’ with a neo-orientalist vision of the Muslim woman wearing a burqa. In fact, this orientalist discourse successfully makes distinctions between the Swiss citizen and the Oriental ‘other’ by relying on “the deep and recurring image of the Other as mysterious, erotic, dark, impure and dangerous”, a feature well embodied by the burqa outlining a dark and dangerous silhouette (Figure 2) and the black sheep being forced out of the herd (Figure 1).


In the case of Figure 2, we talk of genderisation of fear due to the relevance of the Habermasian theory of the ‘public sphere’ as analysed by Çınar. According to the theory of the public sphere, “particular identities, interests, and status differences are seen as the main impediment to the attainment of rational solutions to so-called common ideals and, as such, should be bracketed out of public debates”. However, women’s experiences in such a sphere, and in particular that of the Muslim woman, find themselves excluded from the idea of the expansion of political liberties; and the public sphere thus becomes “a gendered regime of presence and visibility” and limits their political liberties by becoming a space of subjugation. This applies particularly well to Switzerland, where legislation was passed authorising a burqa ban in all cantons, with fines that could amount to up to 10,000 Swiss francs. Similarly to their French neighbour’s ban on the burkini, this ban violates the agency of the Muslim woman and clearly illustrates how embedded the fear of seeing the foreign is in UDC voters’ minds.

The poster also seems to be projecting the idea that the woman in a burqa does not choose to wear it and is thus imprisoned.

In nationalist terms, one of the claims that can be understood here is that “‘we’ don’t want ‘them’ to come ‘here’ and do this to ‘our’ women”. This legislation does not entirely come as a surprise; it is not uncommon for orientalism to take over political discourse in instances of fear and uncertainty. According to Nayak, difference between the oriental ‘Other’ and the ‘Self’ is due to the fact that “orientalism in effect reflects insecurity about the ‘Other’ becoming an actor rather than an object in the (…) hierarchy”. In this framework, the oriental ‘Other’ is isolated as a threatening object whose freedom should be limited by the ‘hierarchy’ (a hierarchy which we can interpret as institutional, or possibly racial).

Overall, what this article brought to light is that while Swiss citizens voting in the February 2017 referendum knew that the referendum targeted only a minor portion of the population, UDC’s campaign still got away with claiming the naturalisation process was “uncontrolled”. The bottom line of UDC’s discourse brings us to the conclusion that Switzerland only wants ‘honest’, ‘hard working’ migrants that do not look foreign, that do not speak a language other than French, Italian, or German, and that will make Switzerland richer without becoming a financial drain on the system. We can affirm that Swiss nationalism is slowly being allowed to cover up the truth: the naturalisation campaign and burqa ban are the ultimate proof that if society turns a blind eye to such rhetoric, the policy outcomes are tragic for women’s rights.

One could argue that a process of re-humanisation of the ‘Other’ might well be what Europe needs in this dark hour.



Roberta Maggi, King’s College London alumna, a former student in Dr De Orellana’s “A History of Nations, Nationalism, and Theories of the State” class. Currently undertaking a Masters of Arts in International Relations and Political Science at the Graduate Institute Geneva (IHEID).


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