Belgium is on the verge of becoming the first European nation to ban the burka.
A parliamentary committee agreed yesterday to outlaw the wearing of face-covering veils in public. The full Parliament will vote later this month.
Under the proposals, women could face a week in prison or a fine for wearing a veil in public.
There are an estimated 650,000 Muslims in Belgium–6 per cent of the population.
The text of the new law does not specifically mention burkas but makes it illegal for anyone to wear clothing ‘that covers all or most of the face’ in any public place.
Left-wing MP Denis Ducarme left no doubt the rules were targeting-Muslim extremists.
He said after the vote by the home affairs committee: ‘This sends a very strong signal to radical Islamists.’
The French-speaking liberals who have proposed the law argue that an inability to identify people presents a security risk and that the veil is a ‘walking prison’ for women.
Daniel Bacquelaine, the bill’s chief promoter, said the ban might also be used against potentially violent demonstrators who covered their faces.
He estimated that only a few hundred women in Belgium wore facial veils, but said it was a rising trend.
The MP said Belgium did not wish to follow the ‘bad examples’ of Britain and the Netherlands, where he said many Muslims lived in separate communities.
The proposal is expected to become law as early as June as it has the support of all five parties in the coalition government. But opponents may appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
There have been debates over banning the burka in France, Switzerland and Italy.
This week France’s highest administrative body said a full burka ban, which is supported by all political parties, could violate the French constitution and European law.
Brussels has been linked to Islamic extremist terror operations a number of times since September 11. In 2003, 18 men were convicted of involvement in a terror cell with links to Al Qaeda.