The Netherlands may become the first European country to ban Muslim face veils after its government pledged yesterday to outlaw the wearing in public spaces of the niqab, or veil, and the burka, or full-length cloak covering the head.
The right-leaning coalition said last night that it would look for a way to outlaw the wearing of all Muslim face veils. The grounds for a ban were laid last December when parliament voted in favour of a proposal to criminalise face coverings, as part of a security measure proposed by a far-right politician, Geert Wilders.
Rita Verdonk, the immigration minister, signalled that the government would now push for a total ban, even though the legislation would be likely to contravene Dutch religious freedom laws.
“The cabinet finds the wearing of a burka undesirable . . . but cannot at present enforce a total ban,” the Dutch news agency ANP quoted her as saying after a cabinet meeting.
Ms Verdonk suggested that existing legislation which limits the wearing of burkas and other full-body coverings on public transport and in schools did not go far enough, and that the cabinet would discuss as wide a ban as possible in the coming week.
“The government will search for the possibility to provide a ban,” her spokeswoman told the Reuters news agency.
The announcement is in stark contrast to the laissez-faire image of the Netherlands. The country is known for its tolerance for drugs, prostitution and euthanasia, but in recent years has passed some of Europe’s most unforgiving entry and immigration laws.
Religious tensions have been heightened by the murder of film director Theo van Gogh by a Dutch-Moroccan militant in 2004, and by the dramatic rise of Pim Fortuyn, an anti-immigration and anti-Muslim gay politician who was assassinated by an animal rights activist days before national elections in 2002.
Muslim groups estimate that as few as 50 women out of 1 million Dutch Muslims wear the burka or the niqab, but the groups have protested that a ban would increase feelings of victimisation and alienation. “What the government is doing now is totally disproportionate to the number of women who actually wear the burka,” said Ayhan Tonca, chairman of an umbrella group of Dutch Muslim organisations. “The legislation we already have to protect people for security reasons is adequate,” he added.
One Dutch-born Muslim, identifying herself only as Hope, told Reuters that she wore the niqab because she wanted to. “Nobody has the right to forbid it. If someone decides I cannot wear it, then I will feel suppressed,” she said.
The Netherlands would be the first European state to impose a nationwide ban on Islamic face coverings, but other states have already outlawed them in specific places.
The proposal comes at a time when the debate on veils and whether they prevent Muslim women from integrating, has gathered momentum across Europe, and has drawn comments from Tony Blair and Italy’s prime minister Romano Prodi. In 2004, France banned wearing of overt religious symbols in schools, arguing they were contrary to its separation of church and state.