Dutch to ban wearing of burqa in public
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Dutch government agreed on Friday a total ban on the wearing of burqas and other Muslim face veils in public, justifying the move on security grounds.
Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk will now draw up legislation which will result in the Netherlands, once one of Europe's most easy-going nations, imposing some of the continent's toughest laws against concealing the face.
"The cabinet finds it undesirable that garments covering the face -- including the burqa -- should be worn in public in view of public order, (and) the security and protection of fellow citizens," the Dutch Justice Ministry said in a statement.
The debate on face veils and whether they stymie Muslim integration has gathered momentum across Europe.
The Netherlands would be the first European state to impose a countrywide ban on Islamic face coverings, though other countries have already outlawed them in specific places.
The move by the centre-right government comes just five days before a general election. The campaign has focused so far on issues like the economy rather than immigration because most mainstream parties have hardened their stances in recent years.
Last December Dutch lawmakers voted in favour of a proposal by far-right politician Geert Wilders to outlaw face-coverings and asked Verdonk to examine the feasibility of such a ban.
Because veils were worn for religious reasons, she had feared new legislation could come into conflict with religious freedom laws. But she said on Friday this was not the case.
Existing legislation already limits the wearing of burqas and other total coverings on public transport or in schools.
France has banned the Muslim headscarf and other religious garb from state schools while discussion in Britain centres on limiting the full facial veil, or niqab.
Italy has a decades-old law against covering the face in public as an anti-terrorism measure. Some politicians have called for this rule to be enforced against veiled Muslim women.
The Muslim community estimates that only about 50 women in the Netherlands wear the head-to-toe burqa or the niqab, a face veil that conceals everything but the eyes.
Dutch Muslim groups have complained a burqa ban would make the country's 1 million Muslims feel more victimised and alienated, regardless of whether they approve of burqas or not.
"This will just lead to more girls saying 'hey I'm also going to wear a burqa as a protest'," Naima Azough, a member of parliament from the opposition Green Left, told an election campaign meeting for fellow members of the Moroccan community.
Job Cohen, the Labour mayor of Amsterdam, said he opposed burqas in schools and public buildings, and said women wearing one who failed to get a job should not expect welfare benefits.
"From the perspective of integration and communication, it is obviously very bad because you can't see each other so the fewer the better," he told foreign journalists.
"But actually hardly anybody wears one ... The fuss is much bigger than the number of people concerned."
Since the murder of anti-immigration maverick Pim Fortuyn in 2002, the Dutch have lost a reputation for tolerance, pushing through some of Europe's toughest entry and integration laws.
Social and religious tensions have escalated in the last few years, exacerbated by the murder of film director and Islam critic Theo van Gogh by a Dutch-Moroccan militant in 2004.
(Additional reporting by Emma Thomasson)
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